The True Meaning of Emmanuel

It’s hard to believe it, but the aisles are stocked with Christmas, holiday concerts are already being advertised and “Black Friday” seemingly has become “Black November.” It puts me in the mood for hot chocolate and snow days!  Especially around the Christmas season you will hear Jesus referred to by the name Emmanuel, but have you ever wondered why?  Emmanuel means “God with Us.”  Since coming to Jesus fifteen years ago, I have loved that name and its meaning. I love to think of Jesus by my side in all things, “takin’ the wheel,” so to speak.  But a while back God showed me more about this name Emmanuel.  It’s not just a nice name with a cool meaning, but a glimpse of God’s love for you and me, as well as His plan to pursue our hearts.

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At the time, I’d been reading the stories from the Old Testament with my children, and in the evenings my older son and I were also reading much of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.  At the same time, I was studying the book of Revelation through Bible Study Fellowship.  This is where being in the Word gets so cool.  Reading history and prophecy at the same time will blow your mind!  By having one foot in the history of our faith and the other in our certain future, I was able to catch a tiny glimpse of God’s awesome love story.

Here’s the headline: Since the beginning and until the end, God’s desire is to be with us.  His word reveals time and again that he longs to dwell among us.  In the very beginning he walked with us, and we with him, enjoying an unashamed intimacy and personal relationship.  When we (making poor use of our God-gifted free will) decided to reject God and usurp His role, we introduced all kinds of barriers into this relationship.  It has suffered ever since.

But God’s story didn’t end there.  He still relentlessly pursued us.  God appeared as a pillar of cloud and fire which lead the Israelites through the desert.  He later dwelt among them via the physical temple, but unlike in Eden, His physical presence among the Israelites was limited.  The temple was built in such a way as to ensure God’s innermost chamber (the Holy of Holies) would be inaccessible to all people except to the High Priest (and even then only once a year).  This movable temple traveled with the Israelites everywhere they went, ultimately being replaced by the permanent temple at Jerusalem, built by Kings David and Solomon.  There, again, a curtain blocked God’s holy dwelling-place from public view.

But God’s story didn’t end there, either.  At the right moment in human history Jesus–Emmanuel–was born, fulfilling countless Old Testament prophecies as well as God’s divine plan. God again physically walked among us, no longer restricted to that innermost chamber behind the curtain.  Emmanuel–God with us–had come to once again dwell with His people.  Many people in those times recognized Jesus for who he was, and followed him—can you imagine what that was like?  And since His death, Jesus offers all people everywhere the blessing of God’s Holy Spirit, which is God dwelling in us.  Have you heard that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?  This means it is the physical dwelling-place of God’s spirit the same way that Moses’s temple was a physical dwelling-place for God.

And lest we forget, at Jesus’s death the curtain (or veil, as you may have heard it called) in the temple was torn.  The physical symbol for separation from God was supernaturally destroyed at the moment when God-with-Us fulfilled his purpose of removing all those barriers to relationship with Him.  This is the meat of why Jesus died.  It was to overcome our rejection of God, cleanse us of all those barriers we put up between Him and us, and again dwell with us.  Through Jesus’s sacrifice and this gift of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to walk with God in this life.

Unbelievably, that’s still not even the end of the story.  If you respond to God’s pursuit by turning toward Him, if you believe that Jesus’s death does in fact reconcile you to God and allow Him to dwell with you, there is even more.  God’s response to your commitment of faith is to honor it: to dwell with you in eternity.  This is what we call Heaven.  Revelation teaches us that the final chapter in this love story is a beautiful afterlife characterized by togetherness with our Maker.  Our intimacy with Him will be restored and the beauty of Eden far surpassed.

God’s story, from beginning to end, is the story of His desire to be with us.

When you see the fullness of His pursuit for intimacy with you, across thousands of years and in the face of repeated rejection, does it change the way you respond to Him?  It fills me with overwhelming gratitude. The God of the Universe didn’t just give up on me.  He hasn’t given up on any of us.  From creation…Old Testament History…Jesus’s life and death…to prophecies yet to be fulfilled…they all speak to this singular truth: God’s deepest longing is for relationship with you, me and all of us. The name Emmanuel, God with Us, it means something.  I pray that today you will allow it mean something for you.

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Pain

walk on the greenwayThis post was originally published on That Mommy Blog on March 31, 2013.

It’s been almost a year since I saw a doctor for fatigue, which led me to a diagnosis of chronic migraines and treatment using Topamax, an anti-seizure medication.  For almost a year I have been tracking my pain on a calendar: red for pain, yellow for fatigue, green for “Hallelujah I actually feel good!”  There have been woefully few greens.  Finally I got tired of the side-effects of Topamax (mostly the inability to focus, which was becoming a true impairment), and I am almost completely weaned off and trying to cope with my migraines without medication.  Lifestyle changes, less stress, that sort of thing.

All this to say, I feel pretty intimate with pain.  I have given it a lot of thought in the last year, read a lot about it, and have been trying to understand it.  Why does God allow pain?  Why do some of us suffer a lot—some every day—and other people seem to just coast through?  Really, it’s the same question people have been asking forever: why is there suffering?  The same question Siddhartha wondered about.  The same question non-Christians ask about God.  Why would a loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God allow suffering and pain?

The main argument here is that God loved us so much that he gave us free will; free will leads to choice; choices lead to pain and suffering.  God’s creation, which could have been perfect had we just left well enough alone, is not perfect because we have exercised free will.  We have chosen to exclude God.  We think we can do better without Him.  We have historically and continually pushed Him away, and He has honored that choice, the same way that He also honors the choice to welcome Him with mercy and grace and forgiveness.  We come to Him freely, and He returns love freely to us.  Without this ability to choose, we wouldn’t have been the beings He longed for.  Because God longed for us to love Him freely, He needed to create free will, and therefore the possibility of pain, suffering and evil.  C.S. Lewis says it this way: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”  C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.

So all sorts of suffering result from free will, out of which both love of God and love of evil are born.

But what about pain not arising out of free will?  What about my migraines?  Childhood illnesses?  Famine?  What about losing a loved one?  What about a healthy man I know who was suddenly struck down with three life-threatening illnesses at the same time?  I struggle with this question, and some of the “pat” answers have always seemed a little empty to me.  But I was totally floored recently when I read this, and I need to share it with you:

“The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word ‘love’, and look on things as if man were the centre of them.  Man is not the centre.  God does not exist for the sake of man.  Man does not exist for his own sake. “Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”  Rev. 4:11.  We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest “well pleased.”  The Problem of Pain, 40-41.  (Emphasis mine).

This was a new perspective for me, and while it doesn’t answer the question of why God allows suffering, it gave me a new perspective on suffering itself.  In our culture which celebrates everything “Me,” including documenting every movement on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and in our evangelical culture which celebrates how I love God, how I need him, how I come to him to worship, the idea of me being beside the point is a little…different.  Yes, I believe how I approach God is important.  But to take me out of it a little, and remember that I am also the object of His love…well, that changes everything.

So what does it mean (when I am on Day Six of a crushing migraine and would sooner drive a pickaxe into my forehead than look at this computer) that I was made for God to love me, and not (primarily) vice versa?  It means that my pain is beside the point.  Or rather, it means that I need to continue to worship him, even when in pain. Continue to allow Him to love me, by inviting Him in.  In the face of His magnificent, overwhelming, tender love for me, I find that my suffering truly pales.  I suspect that response is what He’s after.  When we are at our most physically strained, when we are at our most emotionally drained, when we have been beaten down by a world that is fallen and falling around us, the positioning of my soul toward God as it says, “yes, God, you are holy,” that is the fulfillment of His love for us.

I was praying recently, about coming down off of my medication.  Worried about an onslaught of headaches, I asked, “God, please will you cure me?”  God told me no, that I will still sometimes have pain.  But He asked me, in the infinitely patient way He has with my stubborn self, to keep my eyes on Him anyway.  I don’t know how to always do that, but if I try, and manage it even part of the time, I trust that the effort alone will bear enough fruit to nourish me as I suffer.

On Easter, this glorious holiday celebrating the resurrection of Christ, it’s important to mention that God knows our pain.  He experienced every ounce of it on the cross.  You are not alone, no matter what you suffer, for Christ has already experienced it with you.  In fact, God had to become man in order to experience pain in the first place, and He chose to do so facing the pain not only of whipping and crucifixion but also of every human sin and anguish.  He did it in order to know you, the one He truly loves.  He created you to love you, and then He joined you in your sufferings as well.  He is with you now, loving you and wanting nothing more than your love, freely given, in all circumstances.

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