In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 3:19)
I‘ve been meaning to write on this topic for some time. It is, I believe, one of the most arresting theological topics that is largely latent, if not lacking, in the contemporary Christian culture. I call this the theology of dust (but hey, who needs labels these days? I identify as…).
The dawn of creation was an eventful time, to say the least. All that exists or would exist, was spoken into being by the Lord. It was Eden. Perfection. But one thing was missing: a creature who would, in the end, mess up everything and spread sin over the whole world. (Yay. That’s you and I!)
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Gen. 2:7)
The word for dust here in Hebrew is aphar, which generally means dust/dirt/soil/ashes. In the context of an ex nihilo creation (unless you subscribe to a dual creation per Gen. 1:2, but I don’t.), this means the terrestrial canvas onto which God painted all of creation had aphar atop it. It’s like earthen crust as we see today (minus the pavement and skyscrapers). In other contexts in Scripture dust can mean a pulverized material or something used as a building component (like mortar), which lends to the connotation of something small, significant, and ancillary.
Importantly, none of the contexts convey aphar as a glorious material. It’s nothing, it’s rubbish. And I think that’s beautiful.
It’s beautiful to be rubbish.
It’s important not to view yourself as glorious, and here’s why.
About two thousand years ago, something grand happened (and I think you know this story). The Lord of Glory himself made himself nothing (“of no reputation” [Phil. 2:7, in the kenotic hymn]) for our sake. That’s odd, I reckon, considering people who happen upon wealth or fame get so wrapped up in exorbitance that their souls wither.
The Lord surrendered his glory so we could become glorious? What?
But you can see it everywhere.
And we’re at this crux in Christian culture (and I don’t think at the true crux) where we glorify each others’ shortcomings and pat them on the back for confessing that the sin they just sinned five minutes ago was okay because that sin was paid for; where we call our ability to draw calligraphy a gift spawned by the resurrection of Jesus; where we call our passion for fashion or our appetite for fitness an outpouring of the Spirit or a realization of our calling. I call that missing the point.
It is not just our religious climate that creates an atmosphere amenable to this type of self-praise. We also see it in social and political sectors.
We’re enabled to victimize ourselves, to expect cascades of compliments and exhortations whether or not we need it. Do we really need to be featherbedded in all of our aspirations? What about when we fail?
What about when we try our hardest on a test, staying up till 12:17 (that’s the latest I’ve lasted), cramming the energy drink cans in the nook between the counterpane and the wall, panning between social media platforms to make us feel sane and engaged, only to race through a test with bronze balls and receive an American-failing D on our tests?
Christian culture says, “God has a plan for you. Keep trying and trust in him.”
I say, “God has a plan for everyone. Study harder. Life isn’t easy.”
There is, after all, something so tantalizingly gloomy and sweet when you view yourself as a dust. Insignificant. Unworthy. But also redeemed. Glorified. Saved. Magnified and loved.
That God would love a morsel, a creature as we, and shed his blood that we might have life; and not only life, but empowered, abundant life–giving us the victuals for daily living as the sparrows and lilies… is awesome.
It reminds me of a verse from one of Gungor‘s songs called “I Am Mountain.” Its mellifluous denouement goes…
Momentary carbon stories/from the ashes/filled with Holy Ghost
Life is hear now/breathe it all in/let it all go/you are earth and wind.
Now before you throw the heresy stick and proclaim, “Jordan alluded to the banal ‘You are stardust’ new-ageism,” let that sink in a bit.
You are nothing… yet God gave up everything for you.
As a man rather reticent to embrace some of the more sentimental components of Christian theology, I find such dense hope in this thought. When you find humility miles away and outrunning you, and those close to you are handing you undeserved accolades (all of which you refuse to acknowledge), this piece in Genesis is a glorious cradle for your sulking.
When Jesus became man and humbled himself (“emptied himself” per the kenotic hymn in Philippians 2), he didn’t do it expecting a high-five and a Gatorade once the crucifixion was done: he was met with hypocrites and recreants. Nobody asked for it, but everyone sure needed it… I especially did and always will.
Have you ever internally warred against a wave in Christian culture that suggests we be praised–or that we ought to give ourselves more credit? Have you ever reveled in the thought of being just dust?