How Are You?  And Does God Care?

How are you?  We ask this question all the time, from the stranger passing us on the street to the people we know best.  But most of the time, we don’t really want to know.  We don’t want to stop and find out how people are really doing.  Most of the time, we expect them to say nothing more than, “Good, thanks.  How are you?”, and move on.  Most of the time, this question is nothing more than a polite greeting, another way of saying “Hello”.  Why?  Why don’t we want to know how people are?

I think the answer is simple: It costs too much to find out.  Even if it only takes a few minutes out of our day, it costs us our valuable time.  We have to put our schedule, our agenda, aside and pay attention to someone else.  And, if we’re really trying to listen, if we are going to really be present to them, we have to get out of our own heads.  We have to focus all our thoughts and attention on them.

But there’s something else far more costly.  If we really listen, if we really try to understand and empathize with another person, it’s going to affect us.  When someone shares what their struggling with, when someone is troubled, down and out, anxious, or depressed, it affects us.  It affects our mood.   We end up sharing their burden, carrying some of it with us long after the conversation is over.  And that costs us deeply. 

Plus, it’s just human nature to want to fix things.  Especially if you’re a man.  Many years ago, the book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus made the point that men tend not to be good listeners because they feel the need to fix the problem.  At some level, though, I think all of us—men and women included—want to fix things.  To give some brilliant piece of advice or offer a workable solution.  But much of what people are dealing with can’t be fixed.  Much of what people share with us is beyond anyone’s control.  And we don’t like that.  It leaves us feeling helpless and vulnerable ourselves.  That’s why it’s so costly to just sit and listen.

However, one of the greatest gifts we can ever give another human being is to do just this.  Is to just try to understand them and what they’re going through.  Just listen attentively.  Just be present.  As a pastor, I can attest to how powerful this “gift of presence” (as it’s often referred to) is.  I can tell you story after story of how profoundly healing, comforting, and transformative this costly yet simple act is.  As has often been reflected back to me, this simple gift makes things significantly better.  Often, the person being listened to feels freer, lighter, like their burden had been lifted somewhat.  Often, it’s an unforgettable experience for them.  Often, they feel like God has been present in a palpable and powerful way.    

One of my professors in Divinity school was still teaching well past retirement age when I had his class.  At that point, he had been renowned for many decades as both a counselor and as a professor of pastoral counseling.  During his lectures, he often repeated one key truth he had learned through his vast experience: You get credit for trying.  What he meant is that if you’re sincerely trying to listen and understand another person, they will appreciate the effort.  Even if you don’t know how to respond to them, even if you stick your foot in your mouth over and over again, your gift of presence will be a powerful and healing experience for them.  Having stuck my foot in my mouth many times in these situations, I can attest how right he was! 

We often shy away from these conversations because we think we need to be able to give some brilliant piece of advice, or be able to say all the right things, or be able to share a story about some comparable experience we’ve had.  But what people need most is just for us to be present to them.  And when we are, the Holy Spirit uses this to bring them a comfort and healing nothing else can.    

The next time someone asks you “How are you doing?”, try this experiment.  Instead of saying, “Good, thanks.  How are you?”, tell them how you really are.  If they immediately look down at their watch and excuse themselves, you know they don’t really care how you are.  But if they hang around and try to listen attentively, you know that they really do.

Does Christmas matter?  Does what we celebrated just a few short weeks ago make any difference at all?  This is a question I often get: Forget whether or not Jesus is God, why does it even matter if He is?  Why isn’t it enough to see Him as a great moral teacher, or perhaps even the greatest human being to ever live?  What difference does it make whether He was God incarnate or not?

In Matthew’s Gospel, the most important title for Jesus is “Emmanuel” (Mt. 1:23)  The Hebrew literally translates Emma-nu=“with-us”, El=“God”, i.e., “With-us God”.  For Matthew, Jesus is the “With-us God”.  In fact, according to Matthew this is the most important thing that can be said about Jesus.  In the very last verse of the Gospel (Mt. 28:20), Matthew quotes Jesus’ promise that He will remain with us until the end of time.  As most commentators have noted, Matthew uses this title, Emmanuel, as an inclusio.  It frames the entire Gospel, and, as such, highlights Jesus truest identity as “God-with-us”. 

Does Christmas matter?  Yes, it matters profoundly.  There is so much to say about all the ways this holds true.  But the most basic way is this: If Jesus is God, then God truly is with us.  If He isn’t, then it’s like the person who asks how you are, but then walks away as you begin to tell them.  God doesn’t really care.  Oh, we can talk until we’re blue in the face about the love of God.  But if He hasn’t made Himself vulnerable to all we go through; if it doesn’t affect Him, then He is just some far-off deity who doesn’t really give a damn about us. 

But if He has come among us—in the flesh, as one of us—then He truly is the “with-us God”.  Then, He’s like the person who asks how we are and then hangs around to give us the costly gift of their presence.  Then, He is “present” to us.  He allows what happens to us to affect Him—profoundly.  He lets it cost Him—profoundly.  He takes our burden upon Himself, healing, transforming, and comforting us—profoundly. 

Emmanuel.  This is why Christmas matters. 

Emmanuel.  Only a “with-us-God” really cares about us.

Emmanuel.  What’s at stake is the very love of God.   

Praised be Jesus Christ who truly is Emmanuel, God with us!

I would love to hear any questions, comments, or feedback you have.  You can go to the “Contact E.J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leave them there.  I promise to really listen to them!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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