We have a lot of omni- words for God. Omnipotent. Omnipresent. Omniscient. It is our human way of saying that God is beyond all that we know and experience. God transcends human categories.
We learn from the arc of the Scriptures that every time humans try to reach into the realm of God, attaining the unattainable (Genesis 11:1-9) and knowing the unknowable (Job 38-39), we quickly learn our place. We are still creatures, not the Creator. Yet scientific and medical advances have blurred those lines, and humans now do many things that we once thought were only in God’s wheelhouse – ascend into the stars, alter our genetic blueprints, even change the weather.
COVID-19 vaccines are one example of biotechnology fulfilling its promise of providing that “fix” to what ails us. Many have hailed them as miraculous. And truly, they have saved countless lives and altered the course of a world-shifting pandemic.
Disillusioned with Medicine and God
Yet many, myself included, live with ongoing conditions that medicine has not been able to fix. In my early twenties I started having chronic pain in my ankle that spread up my joints and led to endless doctor’s visits and treatments. I first approached these visits with a desperate “save me!” stance, assuming doctors, in their immense knowledge, would pinpoint my problem and give me some pill or surgery and quickly rid my pain. I soon realized that doctors are humans too, operating with imprecise equipment and incomplete knowledge, making educated guesses. Medicine, I found, is often more art than science.
But my experience also shook my view of God. Focusing on God’s omnipotence and omniscience, I became frustrated and angry when God wasn’t demonstrating these qualities in my own life. If God could heal me, why didn’t he? If God knew what was wrong, why wouldn’t he show me how to fix it? Even if I didn’t expect a miraculous healing, I did expect that God would do something to help me – perhaps show me which doctor to see, or what treatment to try. At least give me a sense of inner peace (I was in a mess of anxiety and depression for years following the onset of chronic pain). My turmoil ran up against the age-old theodicy struggle: when God doesn’t do what we think is for our good, we question whether God is good at all.
If Christ can be God risen from the dead and still hold in his body some level of blemish and brokenness, we have to question whether our visions of wholeness are really shaped by the Scriptures or by society.
For all the words we use to label God, we can forget the name he called himself: Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23). This is Hebrew for God with us. In Jesus, God doesn’t manifest as all-powerful, all-present, or all-knowing. Certainly, he may be those things, and showed his power through healings, wisdom, and knowledge. But the chief quality God highlighted in Christ was not doing but being. Being with. Feeling with. Suffering with.
The author of Hebrews writes that Jesus is “one who in every respect has been tested as we are” (4:15) and “subject to weakness” (5:2). The incarnation balances God’s transcendence with God’s immanence. God is now human.
In the resurrection, Christ challenges our images of God even more. Jesus’s resurrected body is different from our bodies – he can pass through locked doors (John 20:19) and somehow ascended into the sky (Luke 24:51). Yet Jesus is still embodied. He eats (John 21:12). He is held by Mary Magdalene (John 20:17). Strikingly, his body has scars (John 20:27).
Theologian Nancy Eiesland read the story of Jesus showing Thomas his scars and startled many by proclaiming this was a “disabled God.” “Seldom is the resurrected Christ recognized as a deity whose hands, feet, and side bear the marks of profound physical impairment,” she wrote.
While we may be uncomfortable with Eiesland’s description of God, her words help us to stand at a critical distance from our own views of ability and disability, health and illness, wholeness and brokenness. If Christ can be God risen from the dead and still hold in his body some level of blemish and brokenness, we have to question whether our visions of wholeness are really shaped by the Scriptures or by society.
When we say “healthy” or “normal,” we think we are speaking of a universal standard but often don’t realize our perspective is shaped by our place in history. In prehistoric times a “normal” life expectancy averaged 25 years. Between 1900 and 2003, the average life expectancy in the United States rose from 49 up to 78, a 57.5 percent increase. Today, people would see dying before one’s 70’s as tragic and premature.
Aside from medical advances, culture also shapes our views of normal, healthy bodies. Beauty standards vary wildly in different times and places. Anthropologist Emily Martin documents that in some cultures premenstrual syndrome is virtually non-existent, whereas in the United States it is seen as a normal part of women’s menstrual cycle.
Today, modern medicine’s aims seem to be morphing. Where medicine once focused on getting all people to a baseline of health, now more resources are funneled into exceeding previous standards for a select few. Are we changing what it means to be human when we can pick optimal genes for our children? What about when we prolong life and youth through surgeries and anti-aging treatments?
Because “normal” is a man-made category, we need to pay attention to people with chronic conditions, whose level of ability doesn’t fit our current definitions of “normal,” whom medicine hasn’t “fixed.” Some conditions are visible, such as requiring a mobility aid like a wheelchair. But some conditions are invisible, like my own experience of looking “healthy” but having debilitating chronic pain. In my book Hurting Yet Whole I tell the stories of many others with “invisible illnesses.”
Those of us with chronic conditions often dwell in the margins of church and society, seen as problems to address or people to help. Others take this stance because our bodies’ refusal to fit mainstream definitions of normal can be threatening. The chronic nature of our conditions challenges the illusion that we humans can overcome anything by our intelligence and grit. In the past, people with disabilities have been seen as less-than-human and suffered terrible discrimination and abuse. Some of that continues to this day.
Yet here we are, still human. Still made in the image of God. Perhaps, even, we reveal aspects of God – a God who embraced human limits and knew weakness – that others prefer to ignore.
As much as God is beyond human comprehension, God also knows our human condition intimately. God is with us. Emmanuel. In a time of pronounced suffering – brought on by the pandemic, increased social inequality, and climate change – many continue trying to transcend human experience and escape into those omni– qualities of God. They try to know more, control their situation, and manage suffering.
There is certainly hope in resting in God’s steadfast character beyond our changing conditions. Yet, God is also with us. If the church can manifest this aspect of God’s character more faithfully, descending into human pain as Christ did, we may yet reveal to the world the relevance and saving power of the Gospel.
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