Rulers

I’m not smart enough. I don’t know enough. You might not imagine that a guy who’s been a professor for over 30 years would still think that. But I do. That’s the funny thing about academia, about hanging around people whose business is scholarship. Over time, if you’re honest with yourself, you become more and more impressed with what you don’t know, even as you try to teach people what you do know.

You don’t have to be an academic, however, to know the feeling. We all measure ourselves by various rulers. And sometimes, compared to our own expectations or the expectations of others, we come up short. I’m not successful enough. I’m not thin enough. I’m not popular enough.

Christians often suffer from the same doubts, with others thrown in for good measure: I’m not spiritual enough; I don’t pray enough; I don’t read my Bible enough; I’m not faithful enough. Even pastors can suffer from “impostor syndrome,” wondering what gives them the right to stand up in the pulpit week after week and preach authoritatively from God’s word.

I’m not enough. These are the words of shame.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that as Christians we don’t need to care about praying or reading Scripture. We do miss the mark — that is, after all, the root idea behind the New Testament’s word for sin — and there are good reasons for an appropriate sense of shame. The question is whether the shame we feel is, in whole or part, an expression of our need to boast in something other than the grace of God.

. . .

This is what can make Psalm 8 so astonishing. Staring into the infinite reaches of the night sky with its countless stars, pondering the might and majesty of God, can make us feel small. And in our world, that feeling of smallness is often accompanied by shame. “What are human beings that you pay attention to them?” the psalmist asks the God who created the vastness of the heavens (vs. 4, CEB). In a shame culture, that question might be followed by some statement of how we’re not enough — too small, too insignificant, too unworthy for God to care.

But that’s not where the psalmist goes.

“LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth!” The psalm begins and ends with these words, reminding us that the entire poem is a celebration of the majesty of God. And smack dab in the middle of this short psalm, in a structural place of honor, we find this declaration about human beings: “You’ve made them only slightly less than divine, crowning them with glory and grandeur” (vs. 5).

And the psalmist continues:

You’ve let them rule over your handiwork,
    putting everything under their feet—
all sheep and all cattle,
        the wild animals too,
       the birds in the sky,
        the fish of the ocean,
        everything that travels the pathways of the sea
. (vss. 6-8)

The psalmist echoes the creation narratives of Genesis. The moon and stars come in first for admiration (vs. 3), then the creatures of the land, sky, and sea. But the human creature, made in the image of God, is singled out and given dominion (Gen 1:26-31) over the rest of earthly creation. Humans were created, to use the technical term, to be vice-regents with God.

Put differently: we were made to be rulers, exercising just and loving dominion alongside a just and loving God.

. . .

You wake up in the morning, stagger into the bathroom, and catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror. What do you see? Someone who’s not enough? Or someone created to be a vice-regent with God?

You look at your family and friends. You look at the people you consider to be your enemies, or at least people you’d rather avoid. What do you see? People who don’t measure up in some way, or people who themselves were created to be rulers?

I’m not saying, of course, that everyone should run for political office and deserves to win. The Bible is shot through with wisdom regarding how humans should fulfill their vocation of justice and love.

But we might do well to remember that vocation in the first place. Shame leads us to exercise what influence we have in counterproductive ways. Too often, we build ourselves up by tearing others down. And even then, we still feel small and vulnerable.

The Christian community, instead, must be a place where people learn to see in each other the possibilities that come with being created in God’s image. We remember that when it comes to a life of righteousness, we are indeed not enough in ourselves. But that is cause for humility rather than shame, because God has joined us to his son and sees him when he looks at us, sees the fullness of what we are still in the process of becoming.

So let’s quit shaming each other and instead marvel together at what God has created.

How majestic, indeed.

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