The Inn or the Manger?

Let’s say you’re God (just go with me on this one . . .), and you decide you want to try out the human thing. You know, get born on earth and live out a lifetime there.

The question is, where to be born? Which parents? What location? There are currently several billion choices. Decisions! Decisions!

But remember you’re God. You know . . . infinite wisdom. Piece of cake! And remember: The sky’s the limit!

So how about being the kid of Bill Gates or Richard Branson? With all that money, you could gulp down the best of everything life has to offer! If you can choose to be born of anyone, in any situation, why not go right for the top?

BZZZZZT! WRONG!

The halls of power

Remember? You’re God! You are love itself (1 John 4:8, 16).

Being God, you’re not getting born on earth for fun and games. You’re getting born on earth because you love the people on earth. Your motive is not pleasure for yourself, but compassion for others. You see how terrible life is for so many of earth’s people, and you want to make life better for them.

That narrows down the choices considerably. So obviously, if you want to change the world you need to be born where the power is. Forget the world’s richest people. You want the world’s most powerful people. Line yourself up to be President of the United States or Chancellor of Germany or President of Russia or China.

Or perhaps it would be a little easier to pick a time period two thousand years ago. Then you could just be born as the firstborn in the royal palace of the most powerful empire, and you’d be in line to ascend the throne when the old man died. You’d have power galore!

BZZZZZT! Wrong again!

Opposite goals

How many of those powerful emperors actually made life better for their subjects? Let’s be honest: the halls of power are mostly about . . . money and power.

If you put all the emperors, kings, presidents, and prime ministers the world has ever known all together in one room, you’d have a fabulous concentration of wealth and power.

Outside that room, you’d have the masses of people, still struggling along, barely making ends meet, serving the rich and powerful with their labor, paying their tributes and taxes to those in power, making the rich richer, and the poor poorer.

But remember, you’re God. You are love. You want to make life better for the people of the world. While those in the halls of power do occasionally do that, far more often they are focused on increasing their own power and wealth. Historically, the palaces of the earth’s rulers are a poor place from which to make life better for the masses of people.

That’s especially so if the goal is not just to make people materially better off, but to make them spiritually better off.

Religion in the halls of power

In the United States, Christian fundamentalists have been trying for decades to influence U.S. policy and law by forming voting blocs, supporting socially conservative candidates, and fielding their own candidates.

The results?

On their hot-button issues, abortion and homosexuality, they’ve hardly made any progress at all. If anything, things are going backwards for them. They’ve managed to chip away at abortion rights in some conservative states, but Roe v. Wade continues to stand through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. And though there have certainly been setbacks along the way, state after state is providing legal marriage for same-sex couples.

Whether you agree or disagree with the fundamentalists on these issues, one thing is clear: politics has not been an effective way for them to achieve their religious goals.

The halls of power simply aren’t a very good place to achieve religious goals, let alone spiritual ones. Kingdoms and governments are all about power and money. Spirituality is all about justice and compassion—loving and serving our fellow human beings, and putting God’s will at the center of our lives.

So as God, let’s cross the palaces and presidential mansions off the list of places to be born.

What about the inn?

If we, as God, are not going to be born in the centers of wealth and power, then at least we’d want to be born in the busy centers of human activity and commerce, right? After all, we want to be noticed. We want to be where the action is! In order to win friends and influence people, we must go where the people are.

In the ancient Middle East—where God actually was born according to the Gospels—the local inn was just such a location.

In those days, inns were not only places where visitors found a comfortable bed to sleep the night. They were places of food, entertainment, and networking. They would be located in the center of town where everything was happening. Visiting merchants and traders would stay there, using the local inn as a base of operation to ply their trade.

Yes, the inn would be an ideal place for us, as God, to position ourselves for maximum influence on the people and the culture that we wish to change for the better.

No room in the inn

There’s only one problem: that “No Vacancy” sign.

Here’s the whole story boiled down into one Gospel verse:

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

No room for them in the inn. How could that be?

God is coming to earth, and there’s no room in the inn? You’d think the best room would be clean, ready, and waiting!

Yet it is precisely because there is no room in the hustle and bustle of business and commerce that God chose not to be born at the inn.

Fast forward to 2012, and consider the mad rush of working, shopping, cleaning, and baking leading up to the festival celebrating Christ’s birth. Where do we find time to let the meaning of the festival touch us? We’re too busy just keeping our heads above water!

As alluring as the hustle and bustle of the world and its business is, the center of commerce is not the place for God to be born in order to bring about true spiritual change in this world.

So let’s cross off the inn, the shopping mall, and the corridors of business from the list of divine birthplaces, too.

We need a place where the presence of God will be welcomed, even if only in the smallest way.

Room in the manger

As it turns out, that place was one of the least prestigious locations imaginable. It was in a stable where the animals were housed. And the bed in which the newborn Jesus was laid was not a bed at all. It was a manger. Ironically, Jesus’ bed may have been the feeding trough for the horses and mules of those visiting merchants and traders.

In modern terms, being born in a stable and laid in a manger would be like being born in the hospital parking lot and laid down in the back seat of a car because the maternity ward was full, and there were no beds available in the hospital.

And yet . . . in a stable there was room for God to be born. And in that stable, the baby Jesus received his first visitors who were truly interested in the birth of a Savior. The visitors were some local shepherds (see Luke 2:8–20). Not the rich and powerful, but the poor and humble.

Here, at last, were people who had the time and the room in their hearts to receive the newborn baby who was the God of the universe.

The spiritual birth story

From a spiritual perspective, nothing in the Bible is mere historical fact (or fiction). If we think of the Bible as a spiritual book telling a spiritual story, then the real meaning is all about our spiritual life. In other words, the Bible’s true meaning is about what happens in our hearts and minds, and in our relationships with one another and with God.

If that is so, what does the Gospel story of the birth of Jesus Christ mean in the story of our own lives? How is God born spiritually as a “baby” in our minds and hearts? And are our minds and hearts busy like the inn, where there is no room for God to be born, or peaceful like the stable with its manger, where there is room?

The birth of God in us

Put simply, God is born in us whenever we feel God’s presence within us in a new way, and our life moves to a higher, more spiritual level as a result.

Looking back over our lives, many of us can pinpoint a specific turning point when our priorities changed, and we committed our lives to higher goals that involved serving others and serving God. That turning point is represented in the Bible by the birth of Jesus Christ.

But just as there are larger and smaller cycles of years, months, and days in the world of nature, our lives also go through larger and smaller cycles. And every time a new cycle begins, long or short, there is the potential for a new birth of God into our souls.

In other words, Jesus can be born in us, not just once in a lifetime, and not even just once a year as we celebrate Christmas, but every week, every day, and even every moment. Every time we feel God working in our lives in a new way, it is a new birth of Jesus in us.

Our inner inn

Where do these births take place?

Just as in the Gospel story, our lives are often hectic and busy. Living in this world is not easy. There are bills to pay, jobs to hold down, appointments to keep, people to take care of. For many of us, our days are cram-packed with stuff to do.

That is the busy “inn” of our lives. That is when there is no room for God to be born within us. As long as our minds and hearts are focused entirely on getting along in this world, there is “no room in the inn.”

This is especially so if we manage to achieve some success. If through our efforts we achieve a relatively comfortable and well-heeled lifestyle, we tend to figure that we can handle this life on our own. We don’t really need that “God” stuff in order to be happy.

Our inner “inn” is the place in our minds where we’re too busy eating and drinking and taking in the world’s pleasures and entertainments. Or, for many of us, it’s when our life is so full of the daily grind of just trying to get by and support ourselves and our family that there’s no space or time left to ponder life’s deeper meaning.

Our inner manger

Yet during all this time when either by choice or by necessity our lives are filled up with the business of getting along in this world, there is a place within us that is looking for more.

That is the stable where Jesus Christ is born, and the manger where he is laid.

Jesus was not born in the palaces of the powerful, in the mansions of the rich, or in the busy, crowed inn of the workaday world. Yes, it is necessary for us to be involved in the world and its business.

Yet Jesus was born, not in the inn, but in a stable with the animals—and his first “followers” were simple shepherds.

When our lives are filled with work and struggle just to get along, in a quiet moment we may feel an emptiness and a longing. There is an out-of-the way stable and our own personal manger in our minds and hearts where we do have room for God—where we long for a new spiritual birth within.

My hope for you is that if you are feeling that emptiness and longing, once the hectic days of preparation for Christmas have passed, you will find the time and the space to feed your soul with new spiritual knowledge, and find a simple place in your heart for God’s spirit to be born into your life in a new way.

The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: This very day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, is born for you. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10–12)

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in All About God, The Bible Re-Viewed
6 comments on “The Inn or the Manger?
  1. Lee says:

    Postscript on the above article:

    Recent Biblical scholarship suggests that the Greek word traditionally translated “inn” in Luke 2:7 refers not to an inn, but to a guest room or upper chamber in a house.

    If this is so, then the stable area (which is implied but not explicitly mentioned in the text) would likely be a lowered area in the ground floor of same house, and the mangers might be built into the edge of the regular ground floor living areas. For a brief article (written from a traditional Christian perspective) with a floor plan of a typical Palestinian peasant home of the day, see “No Room in the Inn? Why the Traditional Christmas Story is Wrong.” If the house were a larger one, there would be an additional second story, possibly accessed by stairs going up on the outside wall, which would be the “inn” or “upper room” for guests.

    I chose to go with the more traditional translation of “inn” because it creates a more familiar image in people’s minds, which has come to have significance for Christians.

    However, while there are different nuances of meaning in the story if the “inn” was actually a guest chamber, and the implied stable where the mangers were located was actually a lower area of the same house, the basic symbolism is the same. The room for visiting guests, which often functioned as a local “inn,” was already occupied. So Jesus was born in the lower common area of the house—perhaps in the regular ground floor family quarters or perhaps in the stable area—and laid in the animals’ feeding trough.

    If the whole story was contained in a single home, this suggests even more strongly that spiritually, the whole story takes place within us. The home where we live, with its various rooms and areas, is a representation of our mind or psyche, with its various habitual ways of thinking and feeling that we “inhabit” every day as we go about our daily rounds.

    Either way, Luke 2:7 is the story of where God finds room to be born in our own mind and heart.

  2. Roy Firus says:

    Hello ! When I typed in ” abortion ” on your search engine this is the only article that came up -so I hope it is alright with you that I ask you for your opinion on abortion here.
    I want to thank-you ahead of time for all the time and effort you put forth in dealing with all of my questions to you .
    Legally speaking the countries of the world have generally one of 5 positions on abortion:
    1.Never allowed -under no circumstances-the Dominican Republic,El Salvador,Nicaragua and Malta.
    2.Only allowed when the mother is in extreme risk of dying due to pregnancy and/or birth.
    3.Number 2 or if the baby will be so unhealthy or so severely deformed that it will not be expected to live at birth or die soon after birth.
    4.Numbers 2 and 3 and in cases of rape or incest.
    5.Abortion on demand- with no medical/ legal reason necessary.
    I just had a ” huge discussion ” with a Protestant Pastor and Biblical scholar that I know very well not to be a hard hearted ,black and white Pastor who has a family and is extremely loving and kind.Neverthless he believes that abortion can only be justified with Number 2 and when I asked him about for example a 14 year old girl being raped ( ! ) and becoming pregnant as a result he still was against it because he said that the unborn child is innocent and has a right to live-but of course should be given all the financial ,psychological .and medical help necessary ( which would always be the case in Sweden ) to either raise the child herself or to give the child up for adoption.
    These are the Biblical verses used :

    1.Psalm 13:9
    For you created my inmost being ,you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

    2.Jeremiah1:5
    Before I formed you in the womb I knew you

    3.Job 31:15
    Did not he who made me in the womb make them ?
    Did not the same one form us both within our mothers ?

    4.Isaiah 44:24
    This is what the Lord says -your Redeemer,who formed you in the womb

    5.Isaiah 44:2
    This is what the Lord says -he who made you ,who formed you in the womb and who will help you

    6.Psalm 22:10
    I was dependent on you from birth,from my mother’s womb you have been my God

    7.Ecclesiates:11:5

    As you do not knowthe way the Spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with childso you do not know the work of God.

    8.Deuteronomy 5:17,Exodus 20:13, Mathew 19:18

    Thou shall not kill.

    What do you believe about abortion ? Thank-you.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Roy,

      FYI, the search box on this site searches only the text of the articles, not the comments. If you want to find every mention of a subject on the site, including in the comments, do a Google search in this format:

      {search term} site:leewoof.org

      The results will include the contents of the comments as well, up to the most recent crawl of this site by Google’s spiders.

      About abortion:

      Personally, I don’t like it. I wish it didn’t exist. I believe it is the taking of a human life distinct from the life of the mother. However, it is a hugely fraught and complicated issue, pitting valid human rights against one another. It’s way above my pay grade make decisions for countries or for individual people about whether abortion in general, or a particular abortion, is justifiable or allowable. It’s an issue that will have to be worked out individual by individual and country by country in the rough and tumble of experience, debate, and societal change. While I look forward to a day when there will be no more abortions, reaching such a day will require massive change in our society and in our world. Passing laws against it seems like an easy solution to those who are adamantly opposed to abortion, but the reality is that laws that don’t have widespread public support rarely work as intended. If there is any real solution to the abortion issue it will not through changes in the laws, but through a change in our individual and collective psyche, and a resulting change in human society. Meanwhile, demonizing the other side and screaming insults at them doesn’t help at all. There are no “bad guys” here. Only people struggling with a very difficult and often very personal issue.

      If you do search this entire site for mentions of abortion using the format I gave above, it will produce about a dozen hits, most of which are mere passing mentions by visitors to the site. For the most substantive one, click here. It is a comment I wrote in response to a reader who had recently had a miscarriage. The comment discusses various issues related to when there is a human soul present, and when that soul becomes viable such that it has eternal life. Unfortunately, there are no clear answers.

  3. Roy Firus says:

    Hello again ! Sorry for all of my questions but this one is closely related to the one above .The Church of the Brethren, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers); and Mennonites, including the Amish, all are against war and killing using number 8 above ( Thou shall not kill -Deuteronomy 5:17,Exodus 20:13, Mathew 19:18) as their doctrinal basis and proof.
    1.May I ask you what your opinion on this question is in regards to war and capital punishment ? 2.May I also ask you since I am using Biblical quotes so much if you have a preferred form of the Bible in English that you read and why .In Sweden -when the Swedish Lutheren Official translation is not used -and a English translation is needed- it is almost always the NIV.Thank-you.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Roy,

      In response to your question, I’ve dusted off a pamphlet about war and military service I wrote over a decade ago that never got published. I’ll run it by Annette tonight, and likely post it within the next few days. In general, I believe that offensive wars are wrong, but that there are times when we must defend ourselves from aggressors through the use of military force.

      While I’m not an implacable foe of capital punishment, I lean against it. It’s unclear that it provides any greater deterrence value for serious and repeated crimes than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. And there are just too many cases of false conviction, especially of poor people and minorities, to feel entirely comfortable with capital punishment. Meanwhile, it cuts off any further opportunity of repentance and reformation for serious criminals (not that those who have committed heinous crimes should ever be released to endanger the public again). For a related article, see:
      Lee Boyd Malvo: Human Justice vs. Divine Justice

      About Bible translations, none is perfect. For the Bible quotations here I most commonly use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the New International Version (NIV).

      However, both have their translation failures. For example, both of them badly mistranslate the Hebrew term for “sin offering” used especially in the book of Leviticus. Instead of translating it as “sin offering” as they should, they translate it as “penalty for sin,” which is a complete misunderstanding not only of the original Hebrew term but of the entire phenomenon of animal sacrifice. It makes it sound like these Old Testament passages support the Protestant fallacy of penal substitution, when they do nothing of the sort.

      I intend to write an article about ancient sacrificial worship at some point. Short version: The Jewish sacrifices were not penalties, as if they were required to pay God a goat or a sheep to compensate for some sin they had committed. Rather, sacrifices were a means of bringing the people back into communion and harmony with God through offering the prescribed sacrifice in accordance with God’s commandments.

      The ancient Hebrews did not think of sacrifices as gory and blood-soaked affairs, as do so many ivory-tower, city-dwelling “Christian” intellectuals today, who have probably never been near a real farm or been present when an animal was slaughtered by small farmers whose lives revolve around their flocks and herds. For the ancient Jews and other livestock-based cultures, slaughtering an animal was almost always an occasion for celebration, usually for a special event such as the birth of a son or when providing a feast for honored guests. In the same vein, the divinely commanded sacrifices of various kinds were not experienced as “paying something to God as a penalty,” but as solemn or celebratory feasts with God. They were special occasions that brought the people back into a close relationship with God.

      This is just one example of how various translations fall short due either to misunderstandings of ancient cultures or to being swayed by their adopted doctrinal positions (in this case, penal substitution), or both.

      So although I use various translations, including the NIV and NRSV, I don’t entirely trust any of them. When preparing the articles here, I regularly look up key verses in very literal translations and in the original Hebrew and Greek to verify exactly what the text says.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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