Perhaps you are one of the blessed few who are entirely content with their appearance. Perhaps you never stand in front of the mirror, as I did this morning, wondering as you take in the image before you, “Why didn’t God improve on that?”
While we’re at it, why didn’t God make you smarter? Stronger? More creative? More insightful? More wonderful in every way?
If, like some irritating friends of mine, you happen to be reasonably good-looking, talented, prosperous, healthy, and happy, asking such questions could seem downright greedy. But lots of us are obviously lacking in one or more of these zones.
Or so it would seem.
But in the kingdom of God, things are not always as they appear.
Jesus is pausing with his disciples in the region of Caesarea Philippi. He asks them how he is currently viewed by the populace, and the response seems very promising: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matt. 16:14).
One would think a rabbi couldn’t do any better, but Jesus then asks the disciples their opinion.
Peter, one of those keen pupils who instantly sticks up his hand whether he knows the answer or not, replies at once: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
For once, Peter is right, and Jesus blesses him. But “then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”
This is a bit disappointing. Peter finally gets an answer right, and he can’t tell anyone? In fact, he gets The Answer right and he can’t tell anyone? Why in the world not?
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (v. 21).
Jesus connects his messiahship, his appointment as the very Instrument of God, with suffering and death … and at the hands of the very people who ought to be his strongest supporters, the religious leaders of the people of God.
This shockingly contradictory idea provokes another outburst from Peter, which Jesus stifles and sets in order. But soon after that, things get even stranger.
Jesus takes Peter and his other two closest associates, James and John, up a “high mountain.” I’ve lived in British Columbia for twenty years and wouldn’t use that term for a slight elevation in the Levant. But I would be missing the point. “High mountains” in the Bible are where certain famous Israelites have met God, notably Moses on Sinai and Elijah on Carmel.
Sure enough, Moses and Elijah appear on this high mountain, too. But instead of meeting Yahweh, they meet with Jesus. And such a Jesus! “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”
Peter, once again quick on the draw, wants this amazing meeting to continue so he offers to build shelters for them. But then a bright cloud (yes, just like at Sinai) envelops them and a Voice says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
The disciples do the natural thing: They fall to the ground, terrified. But Jesus tells them to get up and stop being afraid. They do, and they see only Jesus remaining.
They see that, as important as it is for Jews to pay attention to Moses and Elijah, to the Law and the Prophets, it is supremely important for them to listen to the very Son of God.
And then that Son of God, just now revealed to them in his dazzling heavenly splendor, says this: “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Not again! Peter must have been ready to explode. Why would Jesus silence them about the greatest sight anyone had seen for hundreds of years?
Jesus reminds them that his forerunner, John the Baptist, has already been killed. The implication is clear: If the powers that be are willing to execute someone as popular as John to ward off any challenge to their position, how much worse would they do to someone reported to be the glowing Son of the living God?
Jesus, that is, had to look and sound like an ordinary man—a man so literally nondescript that we have no record of his appearance. He had to do so in order to do what needed to be done: serve as the Son of Man, the representative and model of humanity, quietly making known the good news of the Kingdom of God and training his disciples to take over his work once he inevitably came to the attention of those powers and received the predictable treatment from their ruthless hands.
Why didn’t God make even Jesus more beautiful? If he was capable of shining like the sun, why didn’t he do so all the time? For one fundamental reason: Jesus had a calling, a vocation, a mission to fulfill. As God’s Messiah, he was anointed to perform a certain task. And that task required him to look ordinary, not spectacular. So he did.
Perhaps, however, you have a little trouble relating to Jesus. He is the Son of the living God, after all. Fair enough. Let’s consider a somewhat different illustration. How about James Bond?
The Bond movies, as you might know (although shame on you if you do, harrumph) have starred such actors as Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig—and, indeed, George Lazenby. Now, among the less plausible features of this entirely implausible series are the striking good looks of these men. But James Bond is supposed to be a secret agent. When Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan enters a room, everyone notices. How long does he stay anonymous?
About two seconds.
I, on the other hand, routinely enter, dawdle in, and exit rooms without anyone paying the slightest attention. It follows, by inexorable logic, that I could be an excellent secret agent. “The name is Stackhouse: John Stackhouse.” I could steal the formula, the fortune, and the femme fatale and no one would notice.
Beautiful people have a burden, and they are a burden. Have you ever tried to work beside someone who is fiercely handsome or unusually lovely? You can’t get anything done, can you? In fact, when faced with such a situation, the only sensible thing to do is to marry the person.
We truly ought to give thanks to God that we are not more gorgeous than we are—or more intelligent, or more creative, or more rich, or more influential, or more wise, or more whatever—because if we were much more gifted, we could not function the same way in our particular roles. People might write off our testimony to the Lord’s blessing in our lives with the ready retort, “Well, that’s easy for you to say.” Or they might never feel they could identify with us, living as we do in a bubble of blessing, and so they could never confide in us. Or they might try to push their way into the Kingdom of God for the wrong reasons, to enjoy the trappings rather than the substance of the gospel of renewal, and that would be bad, too.
God wants the whole world back. So God places his people in every walk of life, in every social stratum, in every ethnic group, and in every locale precisely to maximize God’s influence and draw the world most effectively to God’s heart. Thus God strategically deploys individuals and equips them to fit their respective missions.
I am situated where I am, and I am the person I am, precisely to do what only a Christian such as I am can do: namely, to live this particular Christian life and be a witness in my particular way in my particular social matrix. I alone have this set of relatives, friends, co-workers, enemies, neighbors, and so on, and I alone am this sort of person. Therefore I alone can exert the particular benign influence on each of these people that I alone can exert.
This all can sound nonsensically repetitive, of course, but it isn’t. Such a statement is vital to the realization that God has not made mistakes in making each of us who we are and placing us where God has in order to get done what God wants to get done. One day, thank God, we will be more beautiful and talented than we are today. But for now we are “under cover,” playing the roles we have been given in order to achieve key mission objectives that simply could not be achieved were we to drop our disguises and appear in the glory that God has prepared for us (II Cor. 3:18; 4:17; I John 3:2).
The sober implication of all this is that we should accept ourselves and our situation because we trust that God has wisely and kindly assigned us to be a certain sort of person doing a certain sort of work. Yes, there are times in which God calls people out of their situations into greater freedom—or into heavier forms of service. Sometimes God’s call is surprising and disruptive. Normally, however, we can be assured that, unless we have simply run away from God, he has positioned us throughout our lives to do what we alone can do. And however hard it has been—and God’s calling is sometimes excruciating—it’s for only 70 or 80 years, at the most, and then we get to go home and truly be ourselves (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
I daresay, furthermore, that this picture of being called by God to participate in a series of assignments during a lifetime mission is an important improvement upon the common metaphor of our being issued roles in a play. The image of drama has a venerable heritage in Christian thought, to be sure, and it has its uses. (After all, when the likes of Søren Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, N. T. Wright, and Kevin Vanhoozer capitalize on the image, one is wise to give it its due.)
But drama isn’t real—and our lives certainly are. We are not playacting. We are, the Bible says, in a war. A long war, sometimes hot, sometimes cold, but always a grim contest with life-and-death results. The challenges are real, the threats are real, the deprivations and sufferings are real—and so are the outcomes real. You, like me, may find it much more encouraging to keep remembering, in each season and circumstance of life, that you are being called not to act in a play but to accomplish a particular set of tasks as a particular sort of person in your particular situation so as to advance God’s purposes in the real world as only you can.
Why didn’t God make you more splendid than you are? For the same reason that Jesus kept his glory under wraps.
To be most effective in performing his assigned mission, to getting done what he in particular was to get done.
God equips us to succeed in the calling he gives us. This truth doesn’t mean that we can’t use resources God provides us to strengthen and beautify and otherwise improve ourselves and our circumstances. But we do so only if those efforts will help us achieve our mission better—not to avoid it for something we prefer.
These are hard truths. But one can lean for firm support on hard truths. And the best of these truths is that God’s assignment is only temporary, and then there is home, home forever, in which we can finally relax and be totally our glorious selves.
I can hardly wait!
But for now, I’ve got to get back to work.
This column is adapted from my book Why You're Here: Ethics for the Real World (Oxford, 2018).