11/22/2013 02:56 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Humanity's Paradoxical Story

"You are the light of the world... well... in a sinful-filthy-scum kind of way." ~ from Jim Palmer's brilliant "15 Things Jesus Never Said"

I stayed up too late last night, watching sermons online. One crazy pants sermon led to another and so on. It was painful.

I take great care to represent my God well on Sunday, not to do harm to those who need to hear clear truth about the One revealed in Jesus Christ. When I see perfectly competent communicators botch the beautiful, life-transforming story the Christian community preserves and passes on, it distresses and saddens me.

The Christian story, which is every person's story, does not begin with a depraved humanity. Man is good and only good in the beginning ("you made them only a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor"). When we properly teach a theology of man (of anything) we start at the start.

Jews and Christians begin with the creation of humanity in the image and likeness of God, male and female, and when that glorious work was done our first ancestors were found good and only good.

Some Christian teachers and preachers start our story with a fallen humanity, a humanity that has no measure of created goodness remaining. They don't deny our original goodness, but they don't usually start the story there. For one thing, it's hard to start with a good creation made by a perfect God and end up with irredeemable creatures.

Some tell us that men and women are entirely corrupted; that God's holiness and honor allow him to do nothing with us now but abhor and reject humanity. Last evening, as I listened, these preachers enjoyed branding themselves and their congregations with demeaning tags.

God not only hates what you say and do--the sin that drives you from his embrace--he hates YOU. This is the "gospel" they proclaim. Unlike the father in the parable of the prodigal, this God does not stand at the boundary of the kingdom of heaven, day by day, longing for us to return from the far country because we are his and nothing but reunion will do; there's no trace of the Father who out of sheer favor longs to embrace and welcome us back to himself, back to Love.

When this move is made, when we no longer have a grip on why God loves us while we are yet sinners--why he desires our return enough to guarantee that our return is possible in himself--our view of man (and of God) gets warped.

There are elements of truth in this kind of preaching. Man is indeed a mixture of life and death, good and evil, light and darkness and our dreadful sins have cut us off from the source of light, goodness and life.

The further we distance ourselves from God, the less recognizably human we become because part of what makes us like God, even in our wretched state, is his image in us, the deep goodness with which he created us, marred and fractured as it is by our continued callous rebellion.

We are decidedly NOT OK and we need pardon, healing, deliverance and restoration. All of us have "fallen short of the glory of God." Yet even in our brokenness, while we remain unholy and unlovable, God loves us because he made us, not for destruction but for unending connection with him. God does not hate you, he cherishes you.

These teachers also setup a false dichotomy in which failure to believe in something called "total depravity" means one must therefore believe we are hunky dory and sinless. Ridiculous!

As with many mysterious tensions in Christian teaching (Jesus is entirely divine and human without qualification, bread and wine are also his body and blood, etc.), failure to embrace paradox leads to dualistic and therefore meaningless faith, not the faith of the first Christians.

This is humanity's paradoxical story:

Women and men are made good by a wise and infinite community that John and Paul call Love and then, tragically, by sin and submission to dark powers, we are found lost, drifting from our Maker, hopeless and dying, yet never ceasing to bear God's image.

But because the very stamp of God's character is faithfulness, he never abandons humanity.

God becomes clay in Jesus to reveal his divine nature to us face to face and to show us a new humanity, to restore us to his original, intended perfection. God becomes clay so that clay might become like God. This reconciliation he gives as a gift and yet until our dying breath we remain Christ and Adam simultaneously, yielding or not yielding to his Spirit.

This good Creator leaves the 99 sheep to find the one holdout who yet refuses to yield and by a fiery singleness of purpose beyond anything merely human, he pursues and loves us to the end, even the end of himself on the Cross, suspended between this world and the world to come he dies for love of us, but this end is not the end but a beginning that never ends and that seeks to bring the cosmos and all living things along for the ride.

Nothing crazy pants about that.