The Nostalgic Exile part 2: Images of Joy
“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.”
Smell the roses
The chilling presence of pain lurks in the shadow of each day. Families are forcibly separated, senseless violence ends lives, and relationships are fractured. By gazing through the keyhole of this tragic perspective, despair becomes an alluring response. This shattered image, however, distorts the picture of a better reality.
Behind the somber clouds of brokenness, creation’s original design peaks through with a glory of veiled refulgence. “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror,” writes St. Paul, “but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Remembering how this world is supposed to be is like recalling the scent of a rose first smelled years ago. The aroma is soon whisked away with the passing breeze, causing the memory to lose its poignancy. But when the smell of that flower wafts over anew, the memory suddenly returns with striking vividness.
Like a rose smelled again, exiles need to remember. In stories our identify is named and bestowed. And when our heritage has been restored to us, we itching sojourners will cast away the frivolities and joyless passions of our current state and set out on a journey home. Every traveler will quickly discover that this trip is not so long, however, for the Father has already set out to meet us. As we walk step in step with our God, he will tell the most wonderful stories. In the beginning…
The pleasure of heaven
From the wellspring of his love, God created this world as his magnum opus, his masterpiece. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” King David writes, “and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). The sun shines because God rejoices in its light, and the flower blooms because the Lord delights in its vibrant canvas. Our world is suffused with the pleasure of heaven, for when the Almighty made our world, he called it good. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). This rich delights reaches its pinnacle in the creation of humanity.
The perfect image
On the day of creation’s dawn, God sunk his hands into the mud and formed humanity from the dust the earth. After he deftly sculpted male and female, the Lord breathed air and spirit into their empty lungs. When they rose as living beings, the Father didn’t just call them good; he named them very good. These new beings, distinct among earthly life, were crafted in God’s own image.
Every divine portrait carrier is infused with an abiding purpose: to glorify God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says this of humanity’s ultimate aim: “What is the chief end of man? The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” In short, to image God is to glorify him. Like links on a chain, the two are intimately bound together. This divine initiative to image by glorifying is accomplished in two ways: by being and by doing. Every image bearer is charged to sit at the feet of the Lord like Mary, yet also obliged to “be a doer of the word, and not a hearer only” (James 1:22).
God’s image as being
God is glorified in our being. His presence is a place of fellowship, relationship, and abundance. When Adam walked with God in the evening’s cool, he was entertaining the presence of the Most High; he gazed upon the fiery eyes of the Holy One, a privileged denied to Moses and still yet far off for those redeemed in Christ. Every aspect of Adam’s being was oriented toward the ineffable beauty of the Lord.
As God and the first humans walked together, a stream of living joy flowed into their hearts. Experiencing a passing shadow of that fellowship, King David wrote, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
What does this joy look like? Throughout my life, my eyes have captured fleeting images. When my grandma read me bedtime stories about the bravery of King David, joy cast a flickering shadow. When I beheld the sinking sun on Sperlonga beach in Italy, joy found me for a short second. Each moment of divine bliss, however, is a mere echo of a good word spoken long ago.
Though joy is felt by us in the faintest of sentiments, it still remains. This inexpressible delight is the key to being with God. John Piper once famously wrote, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”
God’s image as doing
As God is glorified in our being, he is also exalted in our doing. In this identity of activity and creativity, God called the first man and woman to make something of this good world. “Then God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the first in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground’” (Genesis 1:28).
During a keynote speech given by Andy Crouch at the Jubilee Conference in 2014, he noted that God called man to take the stuff of the good world and make it very good. As God’s image bearers, Adam and Eve were creators also. They would take the raw materials of this world and shape it. Under their hands, wheat, which is good, becomes bread, which is very good. With their mouths, sounds, which are also good, become language, which is very good. The newly made world waited with eager excitement to see what God’s image bearers would make.
Purpose for the exile
Creation was made to glorify God, and we are the masterpiece of God’s design, made in his own likeness. In that image, we are called to glorify him. As the first humans abided in God’s presence (being) and created something from the world’s raw materials (doing), the Lord was well-pleased.
Though sin has crept in and corrupted that dynamic, the call still remains the same. Take heart, longing exile, for you can still be and do. Ask God to reveal his presence to you; he will not disappoint (Jeremiah 29:13). In addition, go make something very good out of this world. Your being and doing are not in vain, for Christ is at work in them; they remind a dying world of its lost calling.
Tears of longing for this distant paradise are appropriate, but gazing upon it is necessary so you know how to live your life. This picture, though, is only the beginning, for paradise was soon lost.