The term kenosis comes from the classic Christological text in Philippians 2:7. The Greek verb kenoo is translated “made himself nothing” by the NIV and “emptied himself” by the NRSV. The term’s literal meaning is “empty or pour out” but the metaphorical meaning is “humbled.” Kenosis or kenotic is Paul’s language for the intentional self-humiliation of the Son through incarnation.
What does it mean for the Son to humble himself or empty himself by becoming a human bound over to death? There are many theories as to actually how this happens and what happens. Since 451 A.D. orthodox Chalcedonian Christology has maintained that the Son became human while remaining divine but that the two natures are distinct and unmixed yet united in one person. The Shack, I believe, operates within this Chalcedonian frame. But clearly this is something difficult for the finite human mind to grasp and difficult to portray in a piece of art.
Where I think The Shack serves us well is in some of its kenotic Christology. Whether it is a full blow kenotic theory or to be identified with 19th and 20th century kenotic theories is not my primary concern. Rather, my interest is pastoral rather than historic; my interest is a theological point that has, I believe, tremendous and helpful pastoral implications.
Here are some lines from The Shack that are particularly significant for my Christological interests in this post.
Jesus “has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything” (p. 99).
Jesus lived as a “dependent, limited human being” (p. 100); he lived a “dependent life” (p. 137).
“So even though I created this, I see it now as a human” (p. 109).
“I choose to live moment by moment fully human” (p. 112).
As I live in my “shack” and experience its transformation into a mansion, these Christological motifs illuminate something very important to me.
Jesus teaches me how to live and be comfortable in my own skin. He became flesh, lived in his own skin, maintained his identity as God’s beloved, and loved other people out of that identity. This is how I want to live as well.
Jesus did not draw on his divinity to get himself out of messes. He did not even perform miracles by an independent exercise of divine power. Rather, it was by the Spirit that he cast our demons, for example. Anointed with the Spirit, he was empowered for the ministry of liberation–freeing the captives, healing the sick, preaching good news to the poor.
He lived in his own skin–human skin. He saw the world through human eyes. He grew in wisdom; he learned obedience. He lived with the limitations of human skin. He lived a “dependent life,” that is, a life wholly dependent upon his Father and the empowering Spirit to fulfill his mission in the world. He was not an autonomous God in the flesh, but the divine Logos who surrendered (self-limitation) his power for the purposes of experiencing the cosmos as a “limited” human being, just like the rest of us.
This is the root of the Son’s empathy with humanity. He truly knows what is like to be hungry and thirsty; to be fatigued and suffer pain; to be tempted and to pray as a dependent human being; and to suffer shame and death on a cross. The Son is empathetic because he became like us in every way; he lived in his own skin–a reality he shared with us.
This is one of my comforts, one of my “anchors” in the storms of life. The empathy of God through Jesus means that God understands my suffering and humanity, that God has experienced humanity. He knows what it is like. Papa also has the stigmata–wounds he experienced through Jesus (p. 164). But the more important point than these (though they are extremely important) is the intimacy of God and humanity through the union of divinity and humanity in Jesus.
We were created in the image of the divine and designed for union and communion with the divine. The incarnation is the ultimate expression of that divine intent to commune with humanity. The incarnation is an act of intimacy. God unites with us–not simply in some moral or ideological vision, but in reality, in the flesh, in our finitude. When God became flesh, he became initimately empathetic. God truly shared himself with us and took our pain up into his own life….but not just our pain, our humanity itself. God became initimate in the most literal and fundamental way possible–he really and personally united the divine and the human.
We are thereby one with God on many levels and in many ways. Just as the Father, Son and Spirit mutually indwell each other, humanity is included in that communion so that we dwell within the divine communion ourselves. We mutually indwell the divine as the divine dwells in us–we are in them and they are in us. It is an initimacy beyond our imagination and yet to to be fully experienced though we taste it even now.
The picture The Shack offers us portrays Jesus as still human but one intimate with the Father and the Spirit–and yet also intimate with us, even now…still! When he ascended, he did not divest himself of his humanity. Quite the contrary, he remains the one in whom the divine and human are united, the mediator who as both divine and human reconciles God and humanity. Jesus remains human….and will forever remain so.
When I suggest that the Logos, the Son of God, is eternally human–forever our brother, forever our high priest as Hebrews declares–I sometimes get some surprised looks from students in my classes. The union of the divine and human in the one person is an eternal, immutable reality. The Logos gave up his simple and exclusive existence as God to also become human (to add humanity to himself) and human he will remain. His humanity is as much a part of his identity has his divnity. He did not cease to be God to become human but neither did he put on humanity as a temporary cloak. He became human, still is human, and will eternally remain so.
This inspires awe. It is the wonder of the Son’s incarnational humiliation. He became human to remain human for the sake of restoring humanity and living eternally as a brother with other humans. Wow!
Perhaps–just perhaps–this is what Papa is talking about when she said to Mack, “One day you folk will understand what he gave up” (p. 191). This is the love of God–Father, Son and Spirit. This is the sacrifice of God for our sakes. This is the mystery of redemption.
Then again perhaps we will never understand, but we will have an eternity to explore the wonder of what the Son gave up for us and how the Triune God took humanity up into their own life and communion. What a wonder it will be!