A Three-Dimensional Model for the Human Condition

July 1st, 2016
This article is featured in the Does Preaching Matter? (Aug/Sep/Oct 2016) issue of Circuit Rider

A three-dimensional schema can help preachers build a cumulative approach to preaching on the human condition with the depth required by both the gospel and the needs of our congregations. While the threats and damage done to human well-being have the two sides of sin and suffering, viewed theologically they can also be described as having three dimensions that need to be addressed throughout one’s preaching ministry.[1] Indeed, each of the three dimensions encompasses both sin and suffering, analogous to the way height has a top and bottom, width has right and left, and depth has front and back.

I propose that we use the greatest commandment as a heuristic lens for approaching the three dimensions of the human condition cumulatively in our preaching.

And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. . . . The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:30-31 CEB)

While the two commandments deal with an ethic of love expected of us, the language of the commandment suggests three different relationships at the center of the human condition.

We start with the command to love God. When turned on its head, the command to love God completely—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—intimates that there is a broken relationship between God and humanity. Something is wrong with the vertical dimension of human relationality. The vertical relationship between humanity and God can be said to be broken when, for various reasons, that divine will is not actualized in the world. This brokenness is experienced from the side of human responsibility and from the side of divine responsibility.

The second dimension of the human condition can be viewed through the command to love your neighbor. This command intimates that there is a broken relationship between human and human. Something is wrong with the horizontal dimension of human relationality. We have moved, in other words, from the realm of faith and devotion to that of ethics. The horizontal relationship between one human and another is broken when the divine desire for peace, justice, and mercy is not actualized in the world. And this brokenness is experienced from the side of our responsibility for the other (sin) as well as from the side of our victimization by the other (suffering).

This article is excerpted from the upcoming book Preaching and the Human Condition: Loving God, Self, and Others (Abingdon Press, August 2016).

The third and final dimension of our heuristic model for the human condition is suggested by the closing phrase of the second command to love your neighbor as yourself. When the qualification of loving others as we love ourselves is turned on its head, the implication is that the human condition is characterized, in part, by a broken or fragmented (rather than integrated) relationship between a person and her or his self.

In the metaphor of three dimensions, we are observing the dimension of depth. What we really mean is that something is wrong with the internal dimension of the human being. The internal relationship between a human and herself or himself can be said to be fragmented when, for various reasons, the God-gifted integration of an individual’s finite existence is not fulfilled. It’s the state of self-estrangement. Because this dimension of the human condition is viewed as a psychological, existential state of being, the two sides of sin and suffering are not simply related in an inseparable fashion as in the previous two dimensions; here they collapse on each other. Sin against oneself causes and in turn is caused by self-suffering.

Language and Imagery

We should name whatever element of the human condition we are addressing in a sermon with honesty, clarity, and without blinking. For instance, consider how often in funerals preachers avoid naming that the person lying in the casket in front of the congregation is dead. The very limit of the human condition shared by every human being and with every living creature is denied at the point when it’s most undeniable. Funeral preachers use euphemisms, referring to death as being asleep, carried away by the angels, departed, with God, called home. Such resting and journey metaphors may name core beliefs for the pastor and/or congregation, but they are also part of the human inclination to deny the brutal reality of death lying right in front of the altar. We might as well take Good Friday out of the liturgical year and jump straight from the mountain of transfiguration to the empty tomb.

“Cory died just like we all will die: ashes to ashes; dust to dust. ‘All flesh is grass; all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field. The grass dries up and the flower withers when the Lord’s breath blows on it. Surely the people are grass’ (Is 40:6-7 CEB).” This sort of empathetic honesty is what needs to be said to help congregants uncomfortably face the human condition and then to hear a comforting word of resurrecting good news that refuses to allow even the final expression of the human condition to be the final word about the human condition.

Naming the human condition directly without flinching is only part of what we must do as preachers. All good sermons show as well as tell. We must provide imagery that will help our congregations see with their ears and imaginations the human condition in which they reside and participate. We too often, however, use sermon illustrations that function in the same way as euphemisms—we picture the element of the human condition being explored with imagery that allows the hearers not to look too closely. We use what a friend of mine, Ron Luckey, likes to call cookie jar images. The preacher names the depth of sin that has us trapped in accordance with Romans 7:19 (“I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do”) and then illustrates it with a three-year-old taking a cookie from the kitchen even though her parent told her not to. All the listeners smile and say, “Aww.”

David Buttrick offers three criteria for judging the appropriateness of an image for a sermon: (1) There must be a clear analogy between an idea in sermon content and some aspect of the illustration. (2) There ought to be a parallel between the structure of content and the shape of an illustration. (3) The illustration should be “appropriate” to the content.[2]

If we apply these criteria to the cookie jar image, we might find that the first two criteria are met, but the third is not. A Norman Rockwell picture of a sweet but mischievous child sneaking a cookie is not appropriately serious to name the level of entrapment we experience as humans in relation to our inability to avoid sinning. The cookie jar analogy is too far away from the real harm sin does to our well-being.

A little distance in imagery, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. It allows hearers to let down their guard.[3] Before they can look in the mirror, they may need to be shown an image that is detached from the seriousness of their own contribution to and imprisonment in the human condition. But cute images can be at best only starting points for leading the congregation deeper into a demonstration of the human condition. Preachers should offer their hearers mirrors that reflect their lives and their world with the guilt and pain they know (but try to deny), which are inherent parts of daily experience.

These mirrors, of course, should be held up to the congregation with empathy. We preachers are as embroiled in whatever element of the human condition is under consideration as is the worst scoundrel in the back pew of the balcony. Imagery that’s inclusive of the preacher allows us to offer a mirror that reveals guilt and pain instead of evoking shame. When the congregation doesn’t feel judged by the preacher but mired in the same condition as the preacher, who’s shown to them in imagery filled with gravitas, they will be able to let down their guard and consider and experience the imagery with the seriousness the subject matter deserves. If the imagery is not true to life (which would include an image that does exclude the preacher), it will not help the congregation hear the fullness of the good news. The gospel, like the cute images, will remain at a distance from the hearers.

[1]Edward Farley also discusses the human condition in relation to three dimensions, or “spheres,” of human reality, but defines them differently than the dimensions described here; they are the interhuman sphere (personal relationships), the social sphere (institutional and social structures), and the personal sphere (individual agency). See Good and Evil: Interpreting a Human Condition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 27–74.

[2]David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 133.

[3]See Michael Brothers, Distance in Preaching: Room to Speak, Space to Listen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014) for an excellent exploration of types of distance that have been and can be employed in sermons.

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