There’s a short story in the Bible*, barely a blip, which recounts how a man named Philip insists on his buddy Nathanael meeting his new friend Jesus. Nathanael doesn’t buy into the hype that Jesus is the legendary figure they’ve all been waiting for, but he goes along with Philip anyway and is taken by surprise when Jesus greets him with a compliment: “There’s a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body.”
“Where did you get that idea?” Nathanael asks. “You don’t know me.”
I imagine at this point in the story, Nathanael is feeling equal parts cynical and creeped the hell out. But then Jesus answers: “One day, long before Philip called you here, I saw you under the fig tree.”
And just like that, everything changes for Nathanael. He instantly recognizes Jesus as divine and joins his posse.
I can’t stop wondering what Nathanael had been doing under a fig tree that would hold such significance when brought up in conversation. It would have had to be something spiritual and deeply personal if Jesus’s noticing him translated to God noticing him, and it would have had to be something of incredible importance to Nathanael for him to know exactly which tree and which long-ago day Jesus was referring to.
Had he been wrestling with doubts? Having a meditative breakthrough? Contemplating suicide? Encountering God in a new way? Facing his life with honesty for the first time? Giving the universe an ultimatum? Feeling like he was at the end of his life? Feeling like he was finally at the beginning?
Don’t worry; this isn’t becoming a Bible study blog, and if you’re still reading, thanks for not bolting in terror at the prospect of Preacher Voice (you know what I’m talking about). It’s just that this little story lodged itself in my mind last night, and not even sleep was enough to shake it loose. I keep imagining Jesus’s expression as he said “I saw you.” Under the fig tree in that moment of personal victory or anguish, long before meeting face to face, in a state of such profound aloneness that only God could have known, I saw you.
It gives me shivers, but not the creeped-the-hell-out variety. They’re the deliciously warm shivers of knowing I’m seen. The Bible is such a complicated and mine-sown book for me that I don’t usually have this reaction to it. I’m much more likely to end up crying or furious or weary or curled into a fetal position sucking my thumb. This is not a dignified thing to admit to, especially as a churchgoer who would rather people not notice her Bible closed tight the entire service, but the contrast between forced religious devotion (hi, fundamentalism!) and Jesus is just too much a part of my life not to share.
Fundamentalism leaves no room for doubts or questions or honest soul-wrestling sessions. Its version of faith is inseparable from putting on good appearances, from reciting the script of holiness at all times. Meanwhile, Jesus says I saw you back then, under the fig tree, working through the messy realities of your own heart. I saw you, and I love your honest bones.
* John 1:45-51. I quote from The Message, which is usually the only version I can read without an allergic reaction.