I started talking about Noah in Bible class tonight and I almost couldn’t stop. He has always been, for me, bigger than life. Not just because he listened to God and built a boat—a very big boat—and probably looked insane as a result. Not just because he was the only person in the world who had faith in God. For me, Noah is a hero because he was faithful and because he was obedient in the midst of what had to be an intense sadness. I look at Noah and I see a man who must have been very, very sad.

Sometimes I think we forget that people died in the flood. That families and children and old people drowned.

Millions of them.

Just think about that moment when Noah gets off the ark. For forty days he’s been cooped up in a wood box with a million or so animals. He’s been feeding them, shoveling their poop, working like crazy, I’m sure. And now it’s time to get off the damp, disgusting safehaven.

I imagine up until this point Noah’s been too busy to really let it all sink in. The last time he saw the world he was snatching glimpses through a closing door—a God-closed door. What was the last thing he saw? His house? Laughing onlookers? His mother’s face?

When that door opened, Noah didn’t see a new Eden. That’s the way it looks in London’s children’s Bible—everything green and lush and flowering. My dad brought back pictures from Missouri when he went to clean up after their big flood last year. Everything was trashed. Houses destroyed, animal carcasses rotting. I figure this is a little more like what Noah saw. I wonder sometimes about the bodies. I don’t want to be gross, but all of those dead people must have gone somewhere. Noah was probably running into bodies for years after the flood. Did he wonder every time if this body might be one of his bodies—a grandparent, a cousin, a brother?

When I see Noah get off that boat and offer that sacrifice to God, I see a man who, despite his sadness and despite the devastation around him, can see the mercy of his God. Noah appreciated the salvation even knowing that his life would never be the same. Noah sacrificed more than a bull. Noah sacrificed everything he’d ever known.

And God was moved by it. The text says, “The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though [a] every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.’”

God looked down at one man and in that one man He saw a reason never to destroy men again. Noah’s sacrifice reminded God of man’s potential. Noah was what God wanted all men to be. And because of him, God’s faith in man was renewed. Maybe, if Noah could remain faithful in spite of everything, maybe if Noah could offer up some of the last animals on earth in humble thanks, maybe man was worth saving. And so God promised never to destroy us again.

What kind of a man must Noah have been?