In a Berlin park the security guard challenged a scruffy figure slouching on a park bench: “Who are you?”
The scruffy man was the philosopher Schopenhauer, and he sadly replied, “I wish to God I knew.”
Secular thought doesn’t help us much with understanding our identity. “The universe is nothing but a collection of atoms in motion, human beings are simply machines for propagating DNA,” says atheist professor Richard Dawkins, straying outside his specialty area of biology.1
Funny, I feel I’m more than just a machine.
“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells,” said Francis Crick of DNA fame. 2 No more? But our deepest intuitions go beyond our bodies. We feel we matter. We look for purpose in our lives. We love soul-deep. We dream of an afterlife—even people who have been told that they don’t have a spirit.
The Bible describes being human in a way that makes sense of our experience. Here is a quick summary:
1. You Are Wanted
You are no accident. God made you for relationships and enjoyment—yours and His (Rev. 4:11). Love and joy—what better reason for God to make everything? “In [God’s] presence is fullness of joy; … [and] pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).
2. You Are Multilayered
You are not a soul trapped in a weak body; you’re a whole person. Like the compound terms in a German car manual, you are a bodymindspirit. You can thinkfeelsense that truth if you learn to listen to the FatherSonSpirit of God.
Your body is created for good. Your senses were designed for pleasure and relationship. Contrary to Dark Ages church dogma and Plato, your sexuality is God-given, intended for love and joy in marriage—and for creating people, a Godlike power. Both male and female are in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27). We needn’t feel guilty about bodily love, but only for selfish, loveless attitudes and the actions they produce.
So develop every aspect of yourself: “Jesus grew in wisdom [mind] and stature [body], and in favor with God [spiritual] and men [social]” (Luke 2:52, NIV).
3. You Are Free
The all-powerful God is such a generous Sovereign that He leaves space for you to have a free will. God likes your individuality—He could have made you a remote-controlled cyborg, but would have seen in your dull eyes that you did not love Him freely or cooperate intelligently. So He gave you freedom, and a status just below heavenly beings (Ps. 8:5).
God is in ultimate control of what will happen to the universe, but cannot be blamed for what people do with their free will. He chooses to limit evil at times (Job 2:1-10) and is such a good strategist that His overall plans will succeed whatever you or I individually do. Your choices matter. Life is not just a video game that can be reset at the end without real damage. You can hurt yourself and others, even with eternal consequences.
I am free, but I am not free. I am naturally enslaved to my misguided grabs for happiness, my ignorance, selfishness and brokenness. Only when God’s Spirit reaches my mind—like oil penetrating a rusty lock—can my will really operate. Then I’m free to control myself, to say no to parts of myself (a great feeling), and to be most myself.
Because the bad news is …
4. You Are Faulty
We can try to suppress this with alcohol or fame or busyness, but don’t we all have moments of humbling clarity when we see selfishness and foolish choices?
Look at us, rushing through our work, wired for electronic entertainment but disconnected from the human next to us, disconnected from nature and our bodies—and even from our own feelings and consciences at times. How well have we done in caring for the natural world (Gen. 2:15)? And we can be closed to God, barely missing the company of the most interesting being. We are relationally dead in the presence of the great life-giver.
We love to blame our parents for our weaknesses. We vow to do better, only to find ourselves flawed, discovering our faults in our children. Fallenness runs through the entire human family (Ps. 51:5), right back to the first parents.
I have an inner shabbiness no designer clothes can cover. I need kindness, and regular, heavy-duty cycles in God’s big gospel washing machine.
If I understand this, I will not demand perfection from people. I may even find grace for my wife, children, friends, workmates—even enemies?—the same grace I need.
At least it’s not just me that’s fallen; it’s all of creation (Rom. 8:19-23). Jesus died to restore everything that is broken—DNA, ecology, cosmology …
5. You Are Mortal
You can “rage against the dying of the light,”3 curse at the sky because you were not healed, but eventually everyone dies—until Jesus returns. You have about 3,400 weekends, total. But this can sober us and drive us urgently toward wisdom (Ps. 90:12; Eccl. 7:2).
There’s one upside to human mortality: nobody will spend an eternity in hell, writhing in pain as flames lick their body, screaming in regret and agony forever. What would that achieve? Wouldn’t that make God morally worse than brutal dictators, whose victims screamed only for hours rather than centuries? The Bible gives two options: one, “the wages of sin is death”—not eternal life in torment. The second option is “eternal life in Christ Jesus”—and that’s a “gift of God,” which means I don’t naturally have immortality (Rom. 6:23).
If I reject God, I will become ashes (Mal. 4:3).
6. You Are Loved—And Called
Jesus died for you to restore a relationship broken by rebellion (2 Cor. 5:19), and because of the “joy that was set before Him”—eternity with you (Heb. 12:2). The goal is relationship and joy again. Why does He want us to serve people and teach the gospel? So they can know His love and joy forever.
Jesus became human and died to take our guilt and repair all of us. We are everything to Him, and He wants to “forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). That is the most important idea I have ever heard, so perhaps you’d please read this short paragraph again until it sinks in.
“Check out the love God has lavished on us, calling us His children. What will we be in the future? That’s beyond us now, but we do know that, when He appears, we will be like Him … ” (1 John 3:1, 2, paraphrased by author).
“Who are you? Who, who?”
Thank God—we know.
This article originally appeared in Adventist World magazine, December, 2010.