Editor's pick
Creed
Easter
6 min read

Easter tells us that we are missed

Our best relationships hint at what we are really missing.

Nathan is a speaker and writer on topics related to faith, life and God. He lives near Seattle, Washington. His writing is featured frequently in The Seattle Times. nathanbetts.com

A persons stands, holding a net curtain aside to gaze out.
Max Harlynking on Unsplash.

I never thought that God could miss me, but recently I’ve begun to wonder if he does.  

Is there a person in your life that you just love spending time with? Maybe this person is a family member, a friend, colleague, neighbor, or maybe your spouse.  As time has gone on in your life you now realize how special that person is to you. You think of the ease, the peace, the low heartbeat, lightheartedness, and depth of feeling that you’ve experienced all in simply being with that person and spending time with them. 

As you think of that person, can you remember a time when there was a longer-than-usual gap between your visits? Maybe weeks, months, years. What was it like when you met up or talked to this special friend of yours after the hiatus? What did it feel like? 

I have someone like this. His name is Andrew. He is my cousin, but I’ve generally thought of him as the brother I never had. We grew up together separated by only one year in age. My childhood is filled with memories of playing with him in different sports, games, wrestling, arguing, disagreeing, pranking each other, late-night fast-food runs, (which I no longer recommend), and eventually working long shifts on low sleep together. We were in each other’s wedding parties. We have experienced a lot of life together. 

As time has gone on, and I now live on the other side of the continent, we have not been able to see each other as often as we would like. 

But recently, he had a special work trip close to the Pacific Northwest, so he made time for a short stay with us near Seattle. On one day, I took him out for street tacos near the ocean and we were able to get some unhurried time to catch up. Throughout his visit I just kept thinking how much I had missed spending time with Andrew. He and I both expressed as much.  

If you have just one of those friendships in life, you have hit the ball out of the park. And if you have two or three of those friendships, you’ve hit a grand slam. These friendships are unique. 

For me, one of the most striking and poignant questions throughout the Bible is when God asks Adam “Where are you?”

As a theologian by education, I often think of these relational traits when it comes to God. Fundamental to Christian belief is that we can, despite how infinitely different he is to us, relate to God. There is a great deal of mystery to this idea, to be sure, but I’ve wondered long and hard what this looks like. In the long history of Christian thought, scholars, pastors, and theologians have pointed to Jesus Christ to help make sense of this massive, otherworldly concept.   

The Hebrew Scriptures reveal what God is like in creation, miracles, acts of grace, displays of power and many other aspects. But when we are searching to understand how God relates to us as human beings, it is Jesus Christ who gives us the primary lens through which we can understand that quality of relationship. The interactions he has with his friends, leaders, children, and teachers are especially revealing. The way he heals people, enjoys meals with others, gives time to the outsiders, and speaks to the uptight religious types is all very instructive in how God relates to us as human beings.  

Over the last few years, I have become increasingly interested in the questions that Jesus asks people. Jesus’s questions reveal to us what he is like.  

“Why do you call me good?”  

“Who do you say that I am?”  

“Whose image is on this coin?”  

“Will you also leave me?”  

“What do you want me to do for you?”  

These and many more have caused me to explore further the questions that God asks people because maybe his questions, sometimes more than his statements, reveal what makes him different. 

For me, one of the most striking and poignant questions throughout the Bible is when God asks Adam “Where are you?” Since childhood I’ve wondered what God was doing in asking that question. God was not asking a geographical question; it’s not as though his internal GPS was confused in the garden of Eden. But if not a geography question, was God then playing an intellectual game with Adam and Eve? Perhaps, but that is increasingly doubtful, given the enormous stakes in that narrative (brokenness had just entered the world) as well as the message we read throughout the rest of the Bible: God takes people seriously. 

Recently I wrote to my friend and leading Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke to see what he thought about God’s question to Adam. Perhaps you’ll find an excerpt of his answer as enlightening as I have: 

The omniscient God is not asking because he does not know. He is asking a real question -- this is not a charade -- to show his involvement with Adam--both an historical and archetype of humanity -- to provoke him to engage with him in dialogue. In short, God misses his fellowship. 

God is asking Adam where he is because he misses him.  

Waltke’s answer to my question makes God’s question to Adam into a sign of his love for Adam, and he goes further to explain that this dialogue is “an historical and archetype of humanity”.  If nothing else, it means that this is the way in which God views his relationship with us. God enjoys being with us and interacting with us. And when the relationship grows cold, he misses us. 

Could it be possible that when we move away from God, he notices? He misses us? 

The British writer Julian Barnes begins his poignant memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of with the words, “I do not believe in God, but I miss him.” Those words set the tone for a book in which Barnes writes about his complicated and fraught relationship with the transcendent. In his book, Barnes expresses his curiosity about what God is like. And amidst the deep and rich thoughts woven throughout the book, the reader never encounters the idea that while Barnes misses God, it might also be true that the God on the other side of the equation misses him.  

To be honest, in all my thinking about God, it is just now that I am beginning to ponder the thought that when I move away from God on some level, he misses me. Could it really be possible that the God of creation misses me?  

Could it be possible that when we move away from God, he notices? He misses us? God’s question to Adam, punctuated by Christ the Lord restoring the severed relationship through his death on the cross and resurrection, demonstrates God’s great capacity to love us.  

As we approach Easter, wherever we might find ourselves on the spectrum of belief: whether we attend church, synagogue, temple, mosque or none; whether we have faith -- a little faith, beleaguered faith, or no faith -- the story of God asking that penetrating question to Adam and ultimately coming to us in Christ is the supreme portrait of what God is like. Easter reminds us that the nature of God’s love is such that when we walk away, God feels that loss, he misses us, and he comes looking for us. 

Explainer
Creed
Faith
6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  

Watch

The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.