Embracing Otherness

It’s a fact that we will interact with people who are not like us. It’s also more likely than not that we will find ourselves in a situation where we are uncertain about what to do or say (or what not to do or say!) to people who are different from us.

What is otherness?

This feeling of uncertainty and unfamiliarity really touches on the idea of otherness, that is, the idea of coming into contact with someone who is quite different from us. Sadly, a common response is to consider those who are different as abnormal or wrong, while assuming our own way of life is normal and right. The Bible has a lot to say about how Christians should rightly think about and relate to otherness.

One of the simplest yet most profound truths of the Bible is that God is God and we are not (Isa. 55:8–9; Deut. 29:29). There is something profoundly other about the God of the Bible. The flipside of this is true as well. When placed beside the Triune God of the universe, we are completely other from God. Although humanity is made in God’s image and creation displays the handiwork of God, both humanity and creation are nevertheless fundamentally different from God.

On the one hand, this is an absolutely wonderful truth. Unlike humans, God is unchanging, eternal, and perfect in his being and attributes. He is perfect, holy, righteous, loving, and good at all times. He is all wise, all-powerful, and ever present. He never needs the world, yet he easily upholds a world fully dependent upon him. There is no other being we would ever want to have as the Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos!

On the other hand, this can be a frightening truth. If God is so distinct from us, then how can he have a relationship with us? Why would he come near and associate with us? Is God aloof, standing afar off, cold and heartless towards us?

If you have ever asked these questions, that means you have begun to wrestle with the Biblical truth that God is God and we are not, the fact that we are completely other from God. If this was all that the Bible ever told us, we could only be in awe-filled fear of a cold and distant deity who was perfect in every way but who could never relate to us as we are.

God is an other-loving God.

But the Bible tells us that the Maker of heaven and earth is a God who willingly reaches out across an infinite void and accommodates us. This is not saying that God relinquishes his divinity or that he compromises his character, but rather that he is able to step down to the level of humans so that we can relate to him and have fellowship with him. Even before sin and evil entered the world, God looked at the others he created, man and woman, and he spoke with them, blessed them, and personally gave them all that they needed. He did not stand afar off but came close to them, speaking in a way that finite humans could understand, giving tangible promises and protective warnings.

Even before sin came into this world, God has always been the other-loving God. Otherness was never a problem for God. He created a world that was distinct and separate from himself in every way, yet he came down to the level of his image-bearers to relate with them, speak with them, and bless them. He came down so that mankind could be lifted up to him, not out of need or compulsion, but simply out of the overflow of his goodness.

The greatest other-loving act that God could have ever done was on the cross. It was there that the Son of God loved estranged, rebellious, and treasonous others by bearing the pain of complete separation and forsakenness they deserved. Again, God never had a problem with otherness. If he did, he would have had to either obliterate humanity or assimilate it. Yet, it was at the cross that God demonstrated what he truly had a problem with: sin and evil. God not only showed his love to an other, but he also showered his grace and mercy to an evil other. In the perfect wisdom and power of God, salvation was accomplished in a way that preserved our identity and personhood while scrubbing us clean of the filth of sin.

How should we approach otherness?

If these things are true about God’s treatment of others like us, how should we treat people who are different from us? We should have no problem with otherness but every problem with sinfulness. In fact, if we are to love what God loves, we should willingly and actively reach out and accommodate those who are different from us. We should be careful about assuming that our own preferences and assumptions are normal and good while considering others’ as abnormal and wrong. Lastly, we can rejoice and praise God that he is the other-loving God who gives us every reason in Christ to be other-loving like him.

Photo of Timothy Isaiah Cho

Timothy Isaiah Cho

Timothy Isaiah Cho works for World Relief Southern California. He earned his B.A. in English Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and his Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California. He is the assistant editor for Faithfully Magazine.

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