The God Who Is With Us
The Difference the Incarnation Makes
What difference does the event we celebrate at Christmas—when, in Jesus, God became one of us, a human being—really make in our lives? I once posed this question to a college mentor, during a time when it felt like my faith was unraveling faster than I could put it back together. Perhaps a bit unusually for a faith crisis, I wasn’t primarily doubting whether I believed in Jesus. I still found the Christian Scriptures too compelling to dismiss; still felt sure they held something uniquely timeless and true.
But I felt left outside, as though a wall separated me from the beauty and hope I saw on its pages. I explained, “Even though Christianity feels true, it doesn’t seem to make a difference.” How could I be a believer without experiencing in any tangible way Christ’s victory—not just in the future, but here, now? The despair and brokenness I saw around me seemed to go on unchanged, untouched. Was the gospel good news only for some?
I still find myself asking this question, especially during the Advent season, as believers around the world lift up the places of darkness still longing and waiting for God’s kingdom to come on earth. In those broken places, where people carry the heavy burden of much of what remains so wounded in our world, it’s hard not to wonder what it really means to experience Christ’s victory.
And yet, in a mysterious and surprising way, instead of leading me to abandon faith in Christ, years of leaning into the sharp edges of these questions have drawn me back again and again into greater depths of the mystery of the gospel of “Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Not because I’ve found answers I can understand or that fully satisfy (I haven’t); but because in a profound way I see echoed in the gospel story the truth and value of those questions.
Because when, in an attempt to justify God’s goodness, we try too hard to explain suffering and evil, we flirt with an even more dangerous possibility: rationalizing or dismissing away the horrific, until in our minds it is somehow no longer evil but necessary and good. And a God who is not horrified by evil, who does not see tragedy for what it is, is a God few of us could really trust.
But in Christ, we see a very different kind of God. Instead of offering answers that smooth away the pain-filled realities of the world’s gaping wounds, in the story of the gospel we see humanity’s pain reflected in the timeless shape of a cross.
It’s not the answer I would have liked. But somehow the gospel’s refusal to dismiss the questions with trite answers, its refusal to erase the mysteriously hard edges of the cross, has been more satisfying than an answer.
Because in our times of greatest pain, is our deepest longing really for an explanation that minimizes our pain? Or is it to be seen in our pain? To be loved and held?
Researcher and psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk, known for his groundbreaking work on trauma’s effect on the body, suggests it’s the latter. In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Van Der Kolk suggests that the severe pain caused by trauma is devastating, not so much due to the specifics of the trauma itself, but because of the way the experience is isolating, forcing its survivors to question their worth and the meaningfulness of their lives.
Trauma, Van Der Kolk explains, “almost inevitably involves not being seen.” Whether experienced through war, abuse, natural disasters, or any of the other ways our world is broken, trauma shakes us to our core because it viscerally contradicts our need to be understood, cared for, and valued. Instead, being helpless before destructive forces leaves survivors feeling profoundly isolated—trust in others, the world, and themselves as a meaningful part of it forever shattered.
Not all of us have experienced clinically diagnosable trauma (although Van Der Kolk suggests nearly seventy percent of Americans may have). But all of us have experienced the myriad ways that living in a shattered world affects all spheres of our lives. Trauma may be one of the starkest encounters with the kind of suffering that forces all of us to ask whether our life is meaningful and our experiences and suffering matters—or whether we’re helpless victims of arbitrary forces who will soon be forgotten. Witnessing the way the world sometimes seems to dispense joy and grief arbitrarily was enough to leave the speaker in Ecclesiastes lamenting, “Meaningless, meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
But if our lives are meaningful, if, no matter how it looks, there is value and dignity in living life in an unpredictable world, then there must be a reality deeper than the visceral experience of trauma on our bodies and world. There must be a truth about our lives that is deeper than what we can see on the surface. As Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, once said, “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.”
And so perhaps this is the constant difference that Christmas, the reality of a God who is with us (Matthew 1:23), makes in our day-to-day lives. In the person of Christ, we don’t get an easy explanation that smooths out the world’s devastation. But we do get a living, breathing answer to whether our temporary lives on earth, with the joys and heartbreaks our bodies carry, really matter to God. In Christ—the infinite eternal God united to a finite human being—we see that each moment of our lives matters. We see that humanity’s life together matters so much that God was willing to share it with us.
Most of all, in Christ we see a God who sees us. We see a love that never dismisses our pain, but honors us in our anguish and carries our burden with us with compassion. In Christ, we see a God willing to carry each of our wounds with us into resurrection.
Because of the gift of Christmas, we can know that—even when we feel most abandoned by God (Matthew 27:46), we are not alone. Christ is with us, his Spirit living and breathing within us every moment. In Christ, we come to know a God different than the one we feared—a God who doesn’t look down on us but honors the courage it takes to live with this life. A God who stoops down to join us in the struggle. A God willing to die for us to have hope.
And somehow, in this time of longing and waiting, when so much remains unanswered, knowing we are not alone, may be what we need most of all. It may even be enough. Enough to live believing in a future when every moment of our struggle will experience the surprising joy of resurrection, and when God will—finally—be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).