I am, I am not and not yet

Whether or not you are a “dog person,” it is very likely you have seen the head tilt.

If you haven’t experienced it in real time, it’s more than probable that you’ve observed it through the lens of pop culture via memes, movies or social media posts. When a person begins talking to a dog, the animal will often fix its eyes on the speaker and tilt its head slightly to one side. We generally assume this response indicates confusion. It appears this is not 100% accurate.

Experts believe when dogs tilt their head, they do so to reduce confusion. It is believed that by tilting their heads, dogs create clearer paths to hear and see those who are speaking to them.

There are certain stories, phrases and descriptions in the Bible that sound a little funny to our American ears. Several things play into this reality, such as differences in culture, language and even distances in time and space.

Even after all these years as a student and teacher of the Bible, I still find myself reading passages from the Bible and then cocking my head to the side like a confused canine from time to time. I often have to do a double take and read it again to make sure I read what I just read and to give myself a moment to process to understand it better.

One example is when Moses asks God for the name he should give when people ask who sent him. In Exodus 3:14, God responds to Moses, saying, “I am who I am.” I’m not sure exactly what Moses was expecting, but I have to imagine this was not it.

Again, to the modern American ear, this sounds like a trite dismissal, not a proper name. It rings very similar to the phrase “It is what it is.” While there are more dramatic instances where the aforementioned head tilt is warranted, this does strike me as a moment to stop and tilt our heads to get a clearer understanding of what is being communicated.

Pastor and Author Louie Giglio provides a great explanation of this encounter in his book, “I Am Not, But I Know I Am.” In this short book, Louie highlights the way God’s response to Moses speaks to God’s independence, authority and ability as well as our dependence in the absence of the same attributes.

He notes how we, in a variety of ways and times without number, find ourselves out of our depth, in need of help and rescue. It is at those times that we need the great I am to come and save us.

Most of us can relate to feeling like “I am not.” We are aware of our weaknesses and shortcomings. We have experienced over and over the consequences of our faults and failings. We have found ourselves crying out in our helplessness and hurt. And by God’s grace and mercy, many of us have experienced the salvation of God as he reaches into our lives and lifts us up and helps us press on through his great power and presence.

In modern America, where we value independence and individualism above nearly all else, we need to be reminded of our great neediness. We need to remember God alone is the self-existing, self-sustaining I am.

I think further clarity is needed, though. A problem often occurs when we experience and accept God’s salvation. We know that God is I am and begin to believe through his grace “I am, too.”

We begin seeing ourselves through an inappropriate filter. This filter amplifies our righteousness, which isn’t actually our own, while trivializing our sin. Consequently, as we look out, we begin to see ourselves as more and others as less. We simultaneously see ourselves as “I am, too” and see others as “Not I.”

Perhaps we need to tilt our heads just a little more often and just a little further. We need to remember all of the good in us is a gift of God’s grace. Our righteousness is not because “I am, too,” but because “I am” lives in and through us.

Rather than looking out with dismissive condescension upon those who are “Not I,” we should see others as the beloved of God who are simply “Not yet.”

We are, all of us, works in progress in need of the grace of Jesus in our lives. We need to reminded, both early and often, that the great God of the universe sent his son to die on the cross in order that a world full of “Not yets” could see clearly that “I am not” and rest in the grace, love and mercy of the only “I am.”