By: Dr. Jono Linebaugh
During a battle on the European continent in 1944, a chaplain came upon a fatally wounded solider. The dying man only had enough life left to ask one question. Starring into the chaplain’s eyes in that final moment before his would forever close, he asked, “Father, is God like Jesus?”
Before we rush to the obvious answer to this question, it’s worth pausing to ensure that we hear it at its proper pitch. The question is not simply an intellectual test, a pop quiz asking you to write “true” or “false” next to the statement “God is love.” The question is about faith. The wounded solider is scared. He’s about to close his eyes in death and he is afraid of who he’ll meet on the other side. So the question is not about knowing the right answer; it’s about what we actually believe God thinks about us. How do you feel that God feels about you, especially when you fail, especially when you consider the inevitability of your own death?
When life wrestles an honest asking of this question out of me, the answer I know – God is love – is not description of what life feels like. Reading the news headlines from around the world, waking at 3am with a crying baby, and, most pointedly, experiencing the fear that follows my failures don’t lead to the conclusion that “God is like Jesus.” The first thing to say in response to this life or death question is that we get God wrong. The first half of John 1:18 says, “No one has seen God.” This is why our attempts to answer the question that life keeps posing – what is God like? – leave us stranded like the sailors in the story of Jonah, crying out to some god but terrified because we’re unsure who we’re talking to (Jonah 1:5).
So the question raised by the question becomes this: If no one has seen God, where do we look to see what he’s like? This question came up in my home recently and I think the story contains the answer. My wife was reading the Jesus Storybook Bible to my three year old daughter when this precocious little princess interrupted: “Mommy, what does God look like?” I can’t say how I would have responded, but here’s what my wife did. Rather than flipping through the children’s Bible to find a picture of God, my wife turned a few pages and read this:
Jesus carried the cross on his back. Jesus had never done anything wrong. But they were going to kill him the way criminals were killed. They nailed Jesus to the cross. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus gasped… “If you were really the Son of God, you could just climb down off that cross!” [the crowd shouted]. And of course they were right. Jesus could have just climbed down… But Jesus stayed…
It wasn’t the nails that kept Jesus there. It was love.
“Papa?” Jesus cried, frantically searching the sky. “Papa? Where are you? Don’t leave me!” And for the first time—and the last—when he spoke, nothing happened. Just a horrible, endless silence. God didn’t answer. He turned away from his Boy. Tears rolled down Jesus’ face. The face of the One who would wipe away every tear from every eye.
Even though it was midday, a dreadful darkness covered the face of the world. The sun could not shine. The earth trembled and quaked. The great mountains shook. Rocks split in two. Until it seemed that the whole world would break…
Then Jesus shouted in a loud voice, “It is finished!” And it was… “Father!” Jesus cried, “I give you my life.” And with a great sigh he let himself die.
That, my wife whispered, is what God is like.
This captures the second half of John 1:18. “No one has seen God,” John writes, but Jesus, “the one at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” The answer to the question “What is God like?” is the name Jesus Christ. We don’t have to wonder, like Joan Osborne, “What if God was One of Us?” In Jesus, God was one of us: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This frees us from having to fret: What does God think about me, especially when I fail, when I’m caught in the act. In Jesus, we hear what God thinks. He says to you what he says to greedy, disloyal Zacchaeus when he caught him in a tree: “Salvation has come to your house” (Luke 19:9). He says to you what he says to the ashamed woman caught in the act of adultery: “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11).
In Jesus, we see that God himself is a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34). God does not shout, “Stay away!” when he sees our sin and shame. He’s not just willing to lend a helping hand like some divine tag-team partner in the wrestling match of life. In Jesus, we see what God is like. He knows our unspoken hopes; he sees our secret failings; he hears our silent suffering… and he stays and says “I love you.” In Jesus, God invades the places we’ve constructed ways of saying to others and to ourselves “Keep Out”—the chaos of a house with small kids, the face in the mirror before the makeup, the idle hours in the office, the thoughts that drift in as you drift off to sleep. God, in Jesus, comes right there, to those real places of suffering, shame, and sin, and he says “I love you.” Listen to 1 John 4:8-10: “God is love…And this is what loves looks like: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son for our sins.”
So back to the wounded solider and his dying question: Is God like Jesus? Is he mad at me or merciful towards me? What is God like? In response the chaplain spoke the word of true Christian comfort: “Yes, God is like Jesus.”
Jonathan Linebaugh is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Knox Theological Seminary (knoxseminary.edu). This article originally appeared on liberate.org.