“I’m only human.”
I’ve heard and used that phrase countless times, as I am sure you have, too. What’s interesting about this common expression is the context in which we use it. It’s never after we score the touchdown, rock the presentation, graduate at the top of the class, or make the best avocado toast the world has ever known, is it? It’s when we fumble the snap, crash and burn in front of our entire department, find out we are one credit short of a degree, or burn the toast. Right?
We associate humanness with failure, deficiency, and error. Of course, these things are part of what it means to be human. We do fail. We make mistakes. We experience wounds and pain. To be human is to be familiar with all of those things. At the same time all of those things do not define what it means to be human.
The Bible begins with a poem about creation [Genesis 1]. In this Hebrew poem the Creator speaks creation into existence (actually, it could be that creation was sang into existence, which is a lovely idea]. During this creation process, which lasted six days in Genesis 1, there is a consistent phrase that keeps popping up. It’s like a bass note that drives this poem forward, to a joyous crescendo. The phrase is: “…and God saw that it was good.” This phrase is repeated with slight variation seven times in the poem. The it—the particular part of creation being called “good”—changes throughout, but the goodness of creation stays constant.
God created the light, and called it good.
God created and separated the dry land and the waters, and called them good.
God created all kinds of vegetation, and called them good.
God created the sun and the moon, and called them good.
God created the sea creatures and the birds, and called them good.
God created the land animals, and called them good.
[With the exception of cats. It’s in there somewhere. Has to be.]
Are you picking up on a pattern, yet?
All of the things that God creates in this poem, God calls good.
The work isn’t finished, though. In Genesis 1, God’s final creative act is to make human beings.
Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”
God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” Then God said, “I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food. To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.” And that’s what happened. God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good. [Genesis 1.26-31, CEB]
God calls the human beings [and all of creation] “supremely good.”
In this ancient poem human beings are created to be God’s representatives, partners, and co-creators—to embody the Divine—in the good world that God has made. That’s what “image” means, I think. It’s not that people look like God. It’s that people are placed in the world to embody God. As a statue in a temple represents that particular god to the worshippers in that space, so human beings are made to reflect the goodness and care of God to the whole of creation. A way to understand the point of the poem in Genesis 1 is this: All of creation is God’s temple (the place where the Divine is encountered), and we are God’s representative images in that temple of creation.
This means that to be human is a good thing. Saying, “I’m only human” shouldn’t be a criticism, but a declaration of value, significance, and meaning. Perhaps we should drop the “only,” and simply say, “I’m human!” We can spend our creative energies in new ways to divide ourselves, to create separation from one other. Yet, before we are anything else, we are human. That is the one label we all share. And it is supremely good.
Do we have problems? Sure.
Do we fail and miss the mark? Absolutely.
Do we experience heartbreak and pain? You can bet on it.
Are we still the human beings God created to represent Herself in the world? Yes, Yes, YES!
We do sometimes fumble the snap, and we also sometimes score the touchdown. To be human has an intrinsic, inherent goodness to it. The choice we must make is whether we will choose to live into (and out of) that identity, and as a result, experience transformation and become our best selves, or will we choose to give into the worst impulses we have, and reject our calling to be God’s image bearers in the world.
Even those moments when we choose the latter that still doesn’t diminish the goodness of being human.
Recently a friend heard me talking about all this and said,
“I think you’re becoming a humanist.”
I thought about it for a second, and then it hit me.
What if God is a humanist?
What if God believes in creation, in us?
What if God is inviting us and pulling for us to be everything She dreams we would and could be?
What if being human is a good thing, both a gift and a responsibility?
One of my favorite Bible stories is the story of Jesus’s baptism. In the Gospel of Mark it’s actually the first time we meet Jesus. Not as a baby, born of a virgin, as in Matthew and Luke, but as an adult who’s coming to join the movement of John the Baptizer. The text says that when Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism he experienced something powerful. He saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit came like a dove to alight on him. Then he heard these words of affirmation: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
What I love the most about this story is that, up until this moment, Jesus hasn’t done anything remarkable: the blind haven’t been given sight, the lame aren’t walking, nor has the dead been raised. He’s not told a parable, preached a sermon, or exorcized an unclean spirit. Up until this moment Jesus was a tradesman from a back water village, likely not on anyone’s radar for eventually being the impetus for a religion with billions of adherents.
He was the beloved, in whom God found deep, deep joy.
How could this be? It has been my experience holding my children for the first time. They couldn’t take care of themselves at all. No survival instinct or marketable skills. No achievements besides showing up in the world.
Each one was our beloved, in whom we found deep, deep joy.
Our task is to learn that this is true for each of us and all of us. Every human is the beloved. The work isn’t to transcend our humanity, as if it were a problem we must overcome. Our work is to live out of and lean into our humanity. The problems actually come from the ways in which we live beneath our humanness: The hatred and bigotry, contempt and hostility, and all of the ways we do not see and acknowledge the belovedness that is inherently ours.
Perhaps this is the question we seek to answer:
What will we do with the gift of our humanness?