The Familiar Stranger
Jesus is closer to you than you realize . . .
I saw this question online: “Who was the strangest person in history?”
I guess that would depend on how you define “strange.” That word could refer to bizarre, irrational behavior—but not necessarily. It could also be applied to someone who may be entirely rational but just isn’t understood by those around them. And then there’s the similar term “weird,” which can be either a “good weird” or a “bad weird.”
For my money, the strangest, weirdest person in history would have to be Jesus Christ, who physically walked the earth 2,000 years ago in what is today modern Israel and Palestine.
If you had passed him on the street, he would have seemed very ordinary—but he was actually God in human form. In order to even begin to grasp what that means, we need to know the most important, most fundamental thing the Bible reveals about God: He is “holy”—which means “set apart,” “distinct,” “unique”—or even “alien.”
In other words, God is . . . strange. Humanly incomprehensible.
And this mysterious Being did the unthinkable: He became human—a man named Jesus. “There was nothing special or impressive about the way he looked” (Isaiah 53:2), yet eventually his closest followers detected his “inner alien”:
Jesus got into a boat, and his followers went with him. After the boat left the shore, a very bad storm began on the lake. The waves covered the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The followers went to him and woke him. They said, “Lord, save us! We will drown!”
Jesus . . . stood up and gave a command to the wind and the water. The wind stopped, and the lake became very calm.
The men were amazed. They said, “What kind of man is this? Even the wind and the water obey him!” [Matthew 8:23-27]
Jesus’ disciples realized he wasn’t just “one of the locals.” He wasn’t ordinary. In that moment they may have recalled that the Old Testament portrays God Himself as the controller of storm and sea.
Yet, in spite of His strangeness . . .
. . . Jesus is somehow . . . familiar.
There’s a concept in psychology known as the “familiar stranger.” “First identified by Stanley Milgram in the 1972 paper The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity,”1 the idea refers to
individuals that we regularly observe but do not interact with . . . . By definition a Familiar Stranger (1) must be observed, (2) repeatedly, and (3) without any interaction. The claim is that the relationship we have with these Familiar Strangers is indeed a real relationship in which both parties agree to mutually ignore each other, without any implications of hostility. A good example is a person that one sees on the subway every morning. If that person fails to appear, we notice.2
This could almost be describing the everyday dynamic between Jesus Christ and the average human being.
There’s a sense in which we “see Jesus” everywhere—and nowhere—at the same time. This is because Christ’s nature corresponds to, and His love fulfills, every legitimate human desire. Seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal put it this way: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception.” Even if some go to war and others avoid it, it’s “the same desire in both,” pursued in different ways. “This is the motive of every [human] action,” even suicide.
Pascal asks, “What is it, then, that this desire and this inability proclaim to us[?]” His answer was that our constant quest for happiness is evidence that humanity once possessed happiness, but lost it. And now, inside of us, there is an emptiness “which [we] in vain tr[y] to fill” with things in our environment and of our own making—entertainment, physical activity, sex, intellectual stimulation, career achievements, money, philanthropy, ordinary human relationships, etc. “But these are all inadequate,” Pascal argues, “because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.”3
Note the phrases “infinite abyss”—the spiritual black hole inside us—and “infinite object”: “God Himself.”
When I read that line in Pascal, I can’t help but think of this Bible verse: “Deep calls to deep in the roar of Your waterfalls” (Psalm 42:7). In its ancient poetic context, this seems to be an echo of verses 1–2: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so I long for you, God. I thirst for God, the living God.”
In other words, there’s something in the unfathomable depths of God’s being that calls out to the depth of our own soul—and our soul calls back. And as I’ve already indicated, this isn’t even a conscious thing much of the time. But it explains why we feel the way we do on so many occasions throughout life, whether positive or negative.
In regard to the spiritual ache we feel in the midst of suffering, one theologian has put it this way: “there is a deep which answers to the deep of human ruin, and it is the deep of Divine grace.”
And this mysterious dynamic between ourselves and Christ isn’t only linked to suffering; it relates to the entire scope of human experience, both the good and the bad. All of it points us back to God:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.4
Another way of expressing this supernatural phenomenon—this unconscious “familiarity” with Jesus—is that there’s something in your own soul that “recognizes” Him, even though He’s an “alien” to you; even though He’s “strange” in certain ways.
Back to the “familiar stranger” concept: in the realm of psychology this is understood to refer only to “individuals . . . [who] do not interact with [each other] . . . . [T]hese Familiar Strangers [seem to have] a real relationship in which both parties agree to mutually ignore each other[.]”
I said earlier that this could “almost” describe our connection with Jesus. It doesn’t entirely fit, because Christ has not agreed to ignore us! Just the opposite: He has “called us by his own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3) In other words, not only has He exhibited His divine power—he also draws us by his spiritual attractiveness. Jesus’ sheer goodness—his virtue, his excellence, his nobility, his justice and mercy (in balance)—strikes a chord of familiarity in us.
We recognize those things in Him because they’re what’s missing in our lives. Either we lack them entirely, or, even if we get a taste of them, it isn’t sufficient and it doesn’t last.
Jesus the God-Man is the infinite “substance” to fill the infinite emptiness in our souls. The Strangest—and Most Wonderful—Person in History still lives . . . and He invites you to experience friendship with Him.
He’s the Familiar Stranger
What does He mean to you?
. . . .
See this face and all the sorrow in His eyes
As He hangs upon the cross against the darkened sky
He looks at you . . .
For He knows how He’s given you His all
He’s a Familiar Stranger
He's been there all along
Do you understand what He has done?
This brokenhearted Stranger
Don't you know what He went through?
. . . .
Are you a stranger to the truth?
Is there an empty echo inside of you?
Do you know the Familiar Stranger?
He's waiting there for you5
More food for thought:
“Familiar stranger,” Psychology Wiki, https://psychology.wikia.org/wiki/Familiar_stranger (accessed 29 Sept. 2021).
Eric Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman, “The Familiar Stranger: Anxiety, Comfort, and Play in Public Places,” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Berkeley, CA: Intel Research: April 2004), 223–230; https://dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/985692.985721 (accessed 29 Sept. 2021; italics mine).
Blaise Pascal (trans. W. F. Trotter), Pascal's Pensées (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1958), Kindle edition, VII.425.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (orig. 1952); part 3 (“Christian Behaviour”), ch. 10 (“Hope”); pdf posted by Philosophy for Life at http://www.philosophyforlife.com/Mere-Christianity.pdf (accessed 29 Sept. 2021).
Geoff Moore, “Familiar Stranger,” on the album The Distance (Power Discs, 1987).