As the season of Advent rolls on, we inch closer and closer to the moment of release, when our waiting gives way to the celebration of Incarnation.
Simply put, Incarnation means embodiment. It’s the idea that in the Messiah divinity became forever intertwined with humanity, and the original purpose of the pinnacle of creation – humankind – was reified and super-fulfilled. That is, because of Jesus, our entire embodied reality was affirmed as holy and spiritual, even as we are invited to be made whole in the Messiah. Really, truly, completely human.
Lately it has occurred to me that as evangelicals we are very prone to opt for ideology over humanity – to, in essence, let our flat theories and theologies trump embodied realities. (Even the Pope agrees). We are prone to neo-gnosticism. Incarnation is the persistent reminder that it must always be the reverse. We do not worship flesh made Word. We worship Word made flesh. Famously, John declares:
And the Word became flesh, and lived among us. We gazed upon his glory, glory like that of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
In the areas of psychotherapy, emotional health, and dealing with all manner of abuse, evangelicalism’s neo-gnosticism has repeatedly proven woefully inadequate – if not dangerous and deadly. (Even Ted Haggard agrees). What does Incarnation have to say to these things? Is it possible that in our desire to pursue “biblical” or “gospel-centered” counseling, we have actually worked from an antagonism that is fundamentally non-incarnational? That favors the ideology of a particular theological framework over the realities of emotional and physiological and social human experience? Can Incarnation – and the Incarnate One – show us a way to reform our negative tendencies here?
John says that the Incarnate Word was “full of grace and truth.” A few chapters later, Jesus himself says:
And this is the condemnation: that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light, because what they were doing was evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light; people like that don’t come to the light, in case their deeds get shown up and reproved. And But people who do the truth come to the light, so that it can become clear that what they have done has been done in God.
Fundamental to Jesus’s incarnational ministry was prophetic honesty – truth-telling. The light that he embodied was the light that reveals what is so often hidden beneath religious ideology and pretense. And this light, this truth, created a very clear boundary in Jesus’s work with people, one that caused some people to come to him and others to run for the hills.
Because I believe in the gospel and in good people, I see Jesus affirming the embodied human experience of that which is emotionally healthy and unhealthy, safe and unsafe. In fact, I see Jesus practicing healthy boundaries in his work with people that reveals the often manipulative, abusive, and harmful ways that people treat each other (which often causes so much emotional and psychological pain and damage). And this Way of Jesus confronts our ideological, neo-gnostic ways as evangelicals.
See, we are very good at creating unsafe environments where harmful and abusive behaviors are explained away using flat theological categories like sin, pride, faith, prayer, love, reconciliation, forgiveness, leadership, headship, submission, etc. Thus, we don’t respond to these behaviors appropriately nor protect those victimized or potentially affected by them. And, these behaviors are often coming from leaders who are protected as those endorsed by God. Further, we often force the value of “community” onto relationships in the church in such a way that puts people in unsafe or even violating situations.
When we interpret Jesus’s words through his Way, however, we see a different picture. Instead of mandated “reconciliation”, we see that there can be no grace, and thus no real reconciliation, without the truth. And, though we always pursue and remain passionate about reconciliation, the reality is that the truth just might bring division, not reconnection. (Forgiveness is another matter, as it requires only one party engaging in a process of releasing bitterness toward the offender.) Matthew 18:15-20 describes a process of truth-telling that may result in the offender not hearing – and thereby being deemed unsafe.
If we mandate things simply by looking at the words of Jesus or the Apostles and drawing out ideological categories, then we may very well continue to produce communities of obligation racked with unhealthy dynamics rather than safe, healthy churches. And if the gospel is bringing us to greater wholeness, showing us what it means to be truly human in the Messiah, then an incarnational church will preach and practice the healthy boundaries that Jesus himself embodied. Consider these last few examples of Jesus’s Way:
- Jesus didn’t let the “community” or “serving” mandate dominate his life and diminish his individuality. He often went away from the crowds to be alone and in prayer. And he discouraged his followers from spreading the word about his miracles because he didn’t want to be co-opted by other’s expectations of him and their agendas regarding his position in religious society. These were healthy boundaries.
- Jesus refused to be manipulated by his mother and brothers. When they came to “speak to him” – no doubt to exercise some control over his life and work – he wouldn’t be derailed. He acknowledged that sometimes taking a stand or even separation from family is necessary, and safe/healthy people are those who support our identity in God and do not seek to manipulate and control us. This was a healthy boundary.
- Jesus was extremely careful about who he trusted. He knew (like no one else!) what people are like and how deceptive and harmful they can be. He didn’t need anyone to tell him that. This was a healthy boundary.
- Jesus included women, the poor, and minorities (those treated unequally and unjustly) but he excluded those who were causing harm and perpetrating injustice (if they refused to repent). This was a healthy boundary.
- Most explicitly, Jesus would not be deceived and manipulated by the Pharisees and religious leaders. He often wouldn’t answer their questions because he knew they were disingenuous. And, he confronted their abusive and unjust practices. These were healthy boundaries.
When we consider the Incarnation this Advent, let’s remember the valuing of humanity over ideology. And, perhaps in a fresh way, let’s receive the permission we need to live healthier, safer, more truly human lives. Let’s seek this for ourselves and those around us because this is best for us – and it is best for the church. Let’s follow our Incarnate Rabbi-Messiah in this Way.
Oh, and church – it’s time to get real and really human about emotional health and safety.
The stakes are too high, and we’ve already done too much damage.