My Position Before God

The first Conference talk given by Peter Lewis to the C-A-N 2002 conference under the general theme ‘Countering Post-Modernism in our World’. Here he outlines those factors and values which reinforce the Christian’s concept of the reality of personal identity and uniqueness.

My Position Before God

The greatest question for Job and those who thought like him was, ‘How can a mortal human being be righteous before God?’ The question was put in another way by the Philippian jailor, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ But neither of those is the voiced question of this generation. This generation has been brought up to believe that God is dead; that the idea of God, whatever it might have been before, is now unnecessary, irrelevant, impossible; he never existed. But the repercussions of that have been enormous and they have not only changed the answers, they have changed the questions too. 

The big question now is not ‘Who is God?’ but ‘Who am I?’; not ‘Is there such a being as the Creator?’ but ‘Is there such a thing as a person?’ 

The attempt to answer the question of our own existence without the presupposition of God’s existence has led us into the obsession with the self, which we everywhere see. All the talk is now about finding yourself, discovering your true self, expressing yourself, developing yourself and so on. 

But a crisis has developed. The expanding self has become the exploded self, and the bubble has been punctured by the very source which blew it up. The atheism which proclaimed the death of God is now preaching the death of the self, that is the death of the idea that human beings are ‘persons’ or have such a thing as ‘personhood’ or are anything more than a stream of consciousness. 

The self itself is in question now: not only its identity but also its very existence. Francis Crick, the biochemist famous for his work on the DNA molecule says ‘It isn’t just that God is dead; man is dead as well; the person isn’t there.’ American post-modernist Richard Rorty describes the self as ‘a network of beliefs, desires and emotions with nothing behind it.’ And this in turn affects all the other questions and values and earlier certainties of human existence: love and friendship, justice and truth, ethics and identity.

For many years now the behaviourist school of psychology has claimed that we are really only machines with mechanical responses and animal drives and that stimuli in our environment determine all our behaviour. Morality and religion alike were irrelevant to our definition, however convenient to our condition and quality of life.

The assault on the concept of the human ‘person’ has only grown in more recent years. For instance, with recent developments in socio-biology and genetic neuroscience over the last decade the whole question of free will receives a new challenge. Tom Wolfe writes: ‘Many neuroscientists believe that genetics determine not only such things as temperament, role preferences, emotional responses, and levels of aggression but also many of our revered moral choices, which are not choices at all in any free will sense but tendencies imprinted in the hypothalamus and limbic regions of the brain….and since your brain arrived fully imprinted at birth – what makes you think you have free will?’ 

But if I am nothing more than a machine I can be treated as a machine and manipulated as a machine. And if I have no free will why should the judge send me to prison when I commit a crime – especially if it was a ‘network of desires and emotions with nothing behind it’? Why should this set of sensations be responsible for what that set did?

Again Tom Wolfe puts it in vivid prose, ‘The conclusion people out beyond the laboratory walls are drawing is: the fix is in. We’re all hardwired! That, and: don’t blame me! I’m wired wrong…The notion of a self – a self who exercises self-discipline, postpones gratification, curbs the sexual appetite, stops short of aggression and criminal behaviour – is already slipping away….The male of the human species is genetically hardwired to be polygamous, i.e. unfaithful to his legal mate. Any magazine reading male gets the picture soon enough. (Three million years of evolution made me do it!)

The conclusion that calls into question my identity and my freedom as a unique moral and spiritual being calls into question my worth. If only convention or agreement or convenience gives me worth then my worth is not intrinsic but ‘exists’ only by general suffrage. Then the only worth I have is that which I project and others allow in a mutual conspiracy of ‘let’s pretend’. It is into this context that your students were born and in it they have lived and grown. They belong to a society with ‘a broken sense of identity’ and a crisis of self worth. 

This faces us as Christian believers on campus or anywhere else with the question: how do you know you exist as a person? How do you know you have worth as an individual? How do you validate your distinct and inalienable moral and spiritual identity? 

Here as Christian believers we see the importance of God’s own revelation of himself which is always given in relation to ourselves, so that it becomes a revelation of who we are as well as who he is. The Bible is not an abstract philosophy or a detached theology. That is, it does not give us a tourist’s guide to God, but the purpose of creation and the history of redemption and the message of salvation. The Bible is all about us as well as all about God; from Genesis to Revelation it is about God and ourselves: ourselves in his light and truth and purpose. And this is an important key with which to unlock the post-modern heart, which longs to know but fears to believe.

The Bible shows each of us to have a unique identity before God. 

This is established in the biblical doctrine of election, which tells us that we had identity and value in God before we were born, and indeed from all eternity. Whatever its problems the problem of identity is not one of them. And let me say that the doctrine of election in Scripture is not a problem but a praise, not a crushing force but a liberating love; it is there not to fill us with anxiety but to strengthen our confidence. 

Our identity is also established by the biblical doctrine of creation. The biblical doctrine of creation states our abiding value in terms of our inalienable possession of the image of God. Even after the Fall we are still described as having that image, marred as it is by sin. We can say there is that in God which corresponds to this in us: he is personal and we are personal: there is a correspondence, which makes us addressable. In rationality, conscience and spirituality we have been created to be ‘on the God side’ of the natural order. 

The biblical doctrine of the Incarnation shows us a Christ who affirms the race he joined, as well as the Father who sent him. All that he was in his perfect humanity affirms and gives value to our essential humanity. He was all that God was yet he became all that we are. There was a correspondence between God and human beings that enabled the Second Person of the Holy Trinity to become human as well as divine: one divine Person in two natures, the Word made flesh, the hope of the world. 

The doctrine of the atonement of Christ further confirms our identity and worth. At its heart is God reconciling the world to himself. The seriousness of human sin and the cost of human redemption exhibit the uniqueness and value of human life. The redemptive work of Christ, supremely in his atoning death, gives us a value that only God can compute and only eternity reveal. The cost the Creator paid for us values us as we could never value ourselves or be valued by others. 

And the judgement of God on our lives, which we must all face, shows us our responsibility before God for who we are and what we do (however relativised it may be by other factors in this fallen world). It gives moral weight to our decisions and actions. When we mock this fact of life we minimise a great many others.

And the call of God in conscience and in the gospel offer, the call to repent and believe, tells me that if I am not perfectly free neither am I wholly determined. I may be limited or swayed or pulled by many factors inherited and environmental – and only God can judge in perfect knowledge of all these things – but in his common grace he has not given us up but sustains in us every good thing, including that moral responsibility which underlies our every good and restrains the evil which is in us all. 

These are some of the boundary-markers that help us as Christians both to respect true science and to know the limits of philosophical assertion. So often assertions are made from some parts of knowledge without reference to other facts made known from other fields of study and other sources of knowledge, including the revelation of God. God, in revealing himself, his will and his plan also reveals to us ourselves and our world and its purpose. We do not know as we ought to know unless we see our present partial knowledge in the light of God and his ultimate purposes. 

But to be without that larger world-view and source of understanding is to live always wondering if there is point or ultimate value in what you are doing or even in what you are. And we humans cannot really live like that. Like David Hume, in another respect, we have to enjoy the company of friends and play our game of cards and take our drink as if it were all otherwise. And even more, the hunch, the hope, the dream remains. And the hunger. 

The search is on for identity and value and it is the search for something that has been lost, though the memory remains. Everyone knows that human beings have value: the baby, the victim of a road accident, the old person. But the rationale for that value has become increasingly tenuous. Where does our value come from as human beings? Pete Lowman offers a number of common answers, which fall short of the ones I have given earlier. He names nine:

  • I have value because of my work
  • I have value because I achieve
  • I have value because I possess
  • I have value because I am loved
  • I have value because I look good
  • I have value because I am busy
  • I have value because people like/respect/want me
  • I have value because I remember
  • I have value because I belong

Now the first and obvious thing to say about these is that each of them is true up to a point. After all, if you took all of those away you would have a very thinly attenuated, impoverished and unfulfilled life.

Yes, but if you had all of those in large measure: talent, wealth, usefulness, popularity, long life, but had no knowledge of God or care for God or relationship with God, you would still have a life which fell tragically short of its true and final purpose. It would have been a life empty of its greatest privilege, dignity and meaning. Each of them is true up to a point but none of them is sufficient nor all of them together, because they are common attempts to make up for God and the loss of God. As Christian believers we should be able and willing both to affirm and to challenge these things, to affirm them as true in many respects and to challenge them as insufficient to account for or express human identity and worth. 

The first two, for instance will touch on our professional lives here in immediately recognisable ways. 
I have value because of my work/because I achieve Lowman quotes Michael Portillo, ‘I have that normal male thing of valuing myself according to the job I do,’ and the late John Thaw (‘Inspector Morse’), ‘I suppose I am a workaholic. It’s all about needing to work to give yourself some importance, to prove that you exist.’ 

Many of us do find an important part of our identity in our work. I want to say that is not necessarily wrong. True, it is problematic in a number of respects: from the competitiveness of our youth and the drivenness many of us feel in achieving, to the crisis of identity in the early years of retirement when no one knows us or reads our papers or hears our lectures. These are the shadow-side of something good, they are the result of a skewed and exaggerated sense of the links between worth and work, identity and achievement. And as such they must be challenged by the gospel, by our own self-understanding, and by a truly eschatological view of the world and our place in it. 

But there is a sense in which we do get something of our identity and even our value from our work. There is a theology of work in the Bible that stretches from the creation mandate in Genesis chapter 1 and its earliest demonstrations in pre-fall Eden in chapter 2, through the frustration and pain of work after the fall in chapter 3, on to the diversity and dignity of work which we everywhere meet in the Bible, Old Testament and New and through to the assurance that we are destined for a new creation in which we will continue to work, as well as worship, for the glory of God. Like everything else in Scripture, work has an eschatological direction and significance. 

We are not to see our work as merely an opportunity for evangelism. We are to see that it has value in itself because of its place before God. ‘All work well done is God’s work’, said Dorothy Sayers. It has a divine value. It also has a human value. 

The cry of the psalmist and the thousands that sang his psalms was ‘Establish the work of our hands’. What we do has value, what we achieve has value, our painfully acquired skills have value. First, because they are the means by which we continue the creation project. The world was made, whether in six days or six aeons, but while it was ‘good’ it was not finished. It was not all one big garden of Eden and if we had not fallen we should have been no less orientated to work and discovery and achievement as we brought out the potential of this wonderful creation. 

And even now, in spite of the world’s brokenness and the invasion of chaos and the touch of futility, which Ecclesiastes laments, even now our work has meaning. We do want to develop the earth’s potential and our own in all sorts of ways and assist and better human life. We do want to discover and create and improve and delight, using scientific knowledge, mechanical skills, the arts, and medicine. 

We do want to leave this world a little better for us having been in it. We do want to leave something behind us when we die. We don’t want that as a substitute immortality (we have something better than that) or simply as a protest against our impermanence. We don’t want it only as a contribution to those that follow us (though certainly that) but above all in willing fulfilment of God’s reason in putting us here on this planet with this time, these talents, and the present opportunity. God himself works with us and appreciates what we do and what we strive to do. We can do our work for his pleasure as well as for his glory in the world.

Further, our work has both a backward and a forward look as we also grasp the present hour. It looks not only back to the Creator’s first intent but forwards to the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness – and the scene of human ingenuity. We shall not be idle in what Hebrews calls ‘the rest of God’ – any more than he is idle. What we do to heal this present brokenness, makes a statement about the future wholeness of the new creation – and our part in it. Who can fail to see something of their value in what they do when what they do is so tied in to their significant place in the present and the future? 

But we do not get our first and foremost value from our work or our achievements or our cleverness. We get it from God. It is the first ‘given’ of all human life. The psalmist also says ‘It is he who has made us and not we ourselves’. Life is a gift, human existence is the last word of God in the making of this planet, and our worth is not to be measured by what we do but by who we are. That is the worth of every human being and it is not a social construct, not a gift of others but of God.

This is made clear right at the beginning of the Bible when God says, ‘Let us make human beings in our own image’ and breathes into the mechanisms a unique kind of life that comes from him and relates to him. It is human life, which gains or loses authenticity as it lives nearer or further away God. 

Human beings have that value from the start whatever abilities, opportunities, possessions, esteem, and awareness they might have or not have. It is a ‘given’ of human nature and God is the Giver. But there is perhaps a ‘value-added’ factor involved in what we do which is why we all have a sense of achievement or satisfaction when we achieve something we have set out to do, be it small or great. 

I know there are extreme cases of disability and even of disadvantage in our fallen world and I am not suggesting that these have less value in the world because they cannot achieve or do not produce. Nevertheless it may be that people have different value and it would be unconvincing to flatten out all value without moral distinctions for instance, so that the rapist and the murderer had as much value as the hero and the saint. 

It would be better to say that all human beings have enormous value by virtue of their humanity; that this value can be diminished by voluntary evil or that it can remain unfulfilled in its potential in the present state of things. One of the features of an eternal development will be the developing of human potential, of everyone’s possibilities without the barriers of time and the politics of opportunity.

Now I put it to you that just as I have explored the first of these ‘value points’ of human life and even human nature showing how the Christian both affirms them and corrects them; confirming their place but denying their sufficiency, so we could go through all the others doing the same exercise. (That might be part of a later exercise in groups). And it is important to do so for two reasons. If we did not pay due respect to these things we would be advocating a very sullen and crass spiritual life. But we must also show where these things come from, by whom they are given, what ultimate purpose they serve and what ultimate value they have.

The Rev Peter Lewis is Senior Pastor at the Cornerstone Evangelical Church, Nottingham, a city with two large universities and medical school, where he has sustained a teaching ministry for 33 years. He trained at the London Bible College and is married to Valerie with two sons. Peter also has a wider conference ministry in Britain and overseas and has written a number of books including The Glory of Christ, The Lord’s Prayer, God’s Honours List, and The Message of the Living God.