We sat in rows, uniform in both posture and clothing. I wore black knee-highs, Mary Janes, a collared shirt—tucked in, of course—and a plaid skirt I secretly thought was really cute. Our teacher stood at the chalkboard at the front of the room, which was flanked by the Christian and American flags. Each morning, the routine was the same. Prayer. Pledges. Bible class.
We memorized a verse each week—from the King James Version—and were quizzed on it Friday. Our teachers taught us that Jesus was holy and blameless—that He came to earth, lived, died, and rose again. He healed the sick, had supper with sinners, and cast out demons. He wept, rejoiced, loved, and grieved. He was and is Son of God and Son of Man.
But to me, Son of Man just meant that He was born to Mary, not that He was actually, truly human. He always seemed removed and unapproachable. I pictured a stoic and serious man, who walked around with His arms extended and His palms open—who said “thee” and “thou” and added an “eth” to the end of “hear” and “know.”
Towards the end of elementary school, Mama decided to home-school my younger brother and me. But instead of a Bible class, filled with pledges and recitation, we just read God’s Word and prayed together. We would rotate whose turn it was to read aloud, all laughing when Davis or I mangled the pronunciation of Old Testament words, like Maher-shalal-hash-baz or Mesopotamia.
Then one year, she sat us in front of the TV and pressed play. The VHS tapes covered the entire book of Matthew. We looked on as Jesus stood, surrounded by men, women, and children. With a smile on His face, He weaved through the people, passing around a leather bag of water. “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them,” He said. “If you do, you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
His voice sounded cheerful, and wherever He moved, eyes followed. People—myself included—were drawn to Him, to His kindness and His joy. He didn’t seem unavailable, and the crowd didn’t view Him that way either.
To me, Son of Man just meant that He was born to Mary, not that He was actually, truly human.
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets as the hypocrites do …”
He shared the water with a woman, who took a big gulp.
“ … in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. To tell you the truth they have received their reward in full.”
The woman passed the water back to Jesus.
“But when you give to the needy …”
Jesus dumped the water on a guy’s head and started laughing. The man’s mouth dropped open in surprise before he, too, joined in. With laughter still in His voice, Jesus kissed the man’s wet head and finished preaching the Sermon on the Mount.
I’m not sure I could put into words what I was thinking as I watched this joyful and laughter-filled scene—or any of the countless others like it scattered throughout the video. And I don’t remember deciding to view Jesus differently. But those scenes stayed with me. And without my knowing what was happening, they began to chip away at my misconceptions about Him, until eventually the stoic, detached Jesus I had long imagined was replaced.
Jesus dumped the water on a guy’s head and started laughing.
With those years long behind me, I recently sat in a circle of five or six people as each one prayed. Afterward, a friend said, “You sound like yourself when you pray.” I don’t remember what I said in response, but her statement stuck with me. Of course I sound like myself when I pray, I thought. Prayer is our connection to Jesus, so what’s the point in praying, if I’m not going to be me? If my whole interaction with Him is just a show?
1 John 4:8 says, “God is love.” His love and His joy are entirely self-generated because it’s who He is. When I approach a Jesus who’s joyful and who laughs, it’s easier for me to be real with Him—to fess up, to cry, to share, to realize that He loves me and He’s my biggest fan.
He’s not a teacher or principal waiting to assign a grade to everything I do, giving conduct notes for untucked shirts or talking out of turn. Rather, whether His answer is “no” or “yes, ” when He disciplines and when He blesses—it all comes from love.
And since He is love, there’s nothing I can do to earn or lose that love. It just is. This realization gives me—gives us—freedom. And that’s the good news. Maybe when we recognize this truth, we’ll be quicker to forgive, to extend kindness, and to love—both others and ourselves.
Illustration by Jeff Gregory