~ What If I Was the Only One? ~
It has become increasingly popular to say, “If you were the only person on earth, Christ would have still suffered and died for you.” That is not a new notion, however. St. Augustine first wrote that sixteen hundred years ago. Since self-esteem psychology wasn’t invented then, Augustine wasn’t suggesting we are important or worthy. He was, instead, pointing to how inexplicable and infinitely profound God’s love is for us, unworthy as we are.
Jesus was pointing to that same love in His stories of the prodigal son and lost sheep. Maybe Augustine was pondering those parables, summing them up in one succinct thought. In the lost sheep tale, Jesus used one hundred sheep because that was a realistic number for one human shepherd to manage. In the economy of God’s kingdom, however, where “a thousand years are like a day,” Jesus could have used a thousand or million sheep. The lost single sheep would have had the same focus of love and intensity. A human parent must divide his or her attention much more among ten children than among two. In turn, the children compete for the finite amount of attention from their parents and the more willful and clever ones do manage to win more for themselves.
Some of us do the same with God, believing we’ll get more of His attention if we pray longer and with more emotion and volume than others, or if we fill a stadium with forty thousand worshipping people compared to a pastor who holds a service of just five in his living room. The intensity of Christ’s incarnational presence is no less when “two or three are gathered” than when two or three million are gathered. Thank God He doesn’t think like us humans. Be consoled that when you pray alone in your secret closet or perform an act of mercy with your left hand not knowing that your right hand is doing it, you have God’s full and undivided attention as though you were the only one on earth.
When the Father completely and fully focused His attention on the prayers of the Christ as He walked this earth and hung on the cross, the Father was just as attentive and fully focused upon a Native American child praying over his dying grandfather or a peasant woman in China pleading to Him for food for her family. Moreover, while the Father was announcing, “Behold my Son in Whom I am well pleased” after Jesus’ baptism, a baby bird falling from a nest in the South American Amazon region also had the Father’s full and undivided attention. He also knew the exact number of hairs on a South African warrior and his name while Jesus was walking on stormy waters and even before the world was created.
This is mystery as it must be. If our brains could understand the nature and ways of our God, He would be less than God. And when we think we understand by our doctrinal accomplishments, we profane the holy and pridefully elevate ourselves, the sin and fall of Satan, and even the desire to do that was the sin and fall of Adam and Eve.
So, what indeed if I was the only one on the earth in need of redemption? I know that Christ would still suffer and die for me. But not because I was special in any way or He had a “plan for my life” or needed me for a purpose. As the Psalms say in different places and ways, my life wouldn’t even tip a scale with nothing as the counter weight. I do know and feel He loves me, though. That’s enough for Him, and me.
But wouldn’t it be more
“worth His while,” so to speak, if He had more then just me to redeem?
As I contemplated His full and undivided attention to my prayers, along
with those of billions of other people, I see each of us being attended
to as though each of us were the only one on earth since we need not “share”
God’s attention or love like He had only a limited capacity or amount to
go around. I realized when Christ “died for the sins of the world,” the
image of a gigantic toxic waste dump needed dispelling. Christ’s redemptive
sacrifice was for the world because it was done for each individual In
the realm of time, each of us didn’t stand in line for the redemptive grace,
Christ being re-crucified when it was our turn. In the timeless heavenly
realm, however, this image may convey more reality. The Book of Revelation
says Christ, the Lamb, was slain before “the foundations of the world”
were created. The Psalms say that God knew us and all we would do before
Redemption is essentially personal. The writer of Hebrews underscores this when he writes, “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are [or would be] crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” ( 6:4-6, NIV). “They” are not the world, but certain individuals.
If I was the only person on earth needing redemption, and Christ told me what He was about to do, would I, like Peter, tell Him He was out of line? Would Christ respond, as He did to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan”? If I refused to let Christ wash my feet, would He also tell me unless I allow Him I can have no part of Him? Would I boast that I would go die with Him? Would I fall asleep on Him while He anguished almost to death over what He was about to undergo just for me? Would I disappear into the shadows when it was time for Him to do it?
Roman crucifixion was agonizing torture. Thousands of people went through it. So the excruciating physical pain was not the ugly, revolting cup Jesus was praying to avoid if there was some other way to restore me into union with my Creator. But if there was only my sin in that cup, wouldn’t His sacrifice been less painful? Afterall, there would be a few billion less people in that cup.
Then I think of a parent
losing four children in a fire versus one losing two. Does the parent with
four children suffer twice as much as the one with two? No, numbers do
not make a difference in matters of the heart. I once heard a well-intentioned
person tell a grieving mother upon the death of a son that “at least you
still have two living children left." That was no consolation. It only
deepened the pain by devaluing the life of one in a numbers tally.
During the centuries of millions of temple animal sacrifices in Jerusalem, a sheep or bull suffered and emptied itself of life just as fully for the sacrifice for one family as for the entire nation. Yes, Jesus would have done nothing different if it were just me in the redemptive work. All those assurances of love in the 14th, 15th, and 16th chapters of the gospel of John would have been still spoken to me. Jesus’ exquisite prayer in chapter 17 would have still been offered for me.
And how would I have lived my life after all that? Probably a lot more devotedly with much more fervor, holy joy and self-denial. It’s troublesome to think about why. If it is were just me in the redemptive act, my response and relationship to Christ would most definitely be different. In the vision of a God who knows the exact number of hairs on my head at any moment, it is just about me. And it is just about you. So why am I not just about Him?
The “If you were the only one” statement of St. Augustine is not a notion to encourage our love and response to God’s love and be quickly passed by. More than we realize, God addresses you as though you were the only one. You and I must respond accordingly and with profound awe and gratitude.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Weekly Reflections © July 27, 2002
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