Despite an insane urge to skip like a little child, I retained my respectability and strode manfully along the path, even if repeatedly interrupted by the need to stare in childlike wonder at yet another botanical marvel. As I continued with appropriate dignity, two fragments of Scripture began to tease my mind: “. . . a little child will lead them . . .” and “. . . unless you change and become as little children . . .” The words haunted me, but seeing no relevance, I dismissed them.|
The living carpet I was privileged to walk on has forever left me disappointed with human technology. There seemed something particularly exciting about it being alive, but I struggled to identify exactly why being alive made it so special. The floral carpet was as superior to artificial floor coverings as living animals outclass stuffed exhibits in a museum. The miniature flowers formed unique patterns. The variations seemed endless, and the extravagant beauty and sumptuous feel were without earthly rival. Its grandeur made me feel like royalty. Nonetheless, it was so magnificent and pristine that it graced me with humility. This was accentuated by the growing sense that no one but the King of kings was worthy to step on it.
Actually, nourished by my experience in front of that cross, the mere thought of stepping where the risen, once-crucified Lord of glory might once have trod made me feel like falling to my knees in adoration. I resisted the urge, of course. I’m not into kneeling. Besides, I had no rational basis for supposing he had ever physically been here.
As physiologically ridiculous as it might be, I strove to sharpen my every sense and open wide every pore of my skin, hoping to draw deep into every part of me, all the exhilarating splendor and perfection surrounding me; from the ever-changing melodic artistry of songbirds, to the individual fragrances of uncountable varieties of flowers, to the sensuous feel of the air, to the rapturous sights caressing my eyes.
What would have been a surprisingly plain stretch of living carpet ahead of me was anything but plain because on it were about three dozen roughly insect-like creatures, all of the same species. As I had come to expect from this place, they were gorgeous but it was how they interacted with each other that seized my attention.
It might be normal to call a gathering of invertebrates a swarm but by earthly standards there was nothing remotely normal about what I was witnessing. I feel more drawn to calling these a team. They were moving in out in a complex, ever-changing pattern, more like synchronized swimmers than any invertebrates I have ever seen on earth. Each used its more than six legs to walk along the carpet at what for most of earth’s insects would be a fast speed. They looked like shiny winged butterflies with beetle-like bodies.
I was still relishing the spectacle when out of nowhere the key to my quandary about emotions flashed into my mind. I felt like scolding myself for not seeing it before.
The question is not how could Jesus be manly when he acted like he did; the question is, how could I be so feebleminded as to accept a definition of masculinity that is contrary to the Divine Role Model? How could I not end up a psychological mess if I am trying to force myself into a mold that my Maker never intended for me? The standards I submit myself to should come not from how I feel about things, nor from my upbringing, nor from my peers, nor from movies and television or other media, nor even from church or fellow Christians (since they, too, can be influenced by factors other than God). The standards I allow to rule me should be set by the One who best knows me – my Maker.
My mind excitedly rushed to Jesus saying that his yoke is easy. That cannot be said of the lifestyle others seek to impose – especially when considering the long-term consequences. I must have the intelligence of a very smart maggot to accept rules to live by that do not come from God! To do so is to dethrone God in my life and make those rules my god. My relieved mind joyfully embraced the truth in Romans 12 about the critical importance of not conforming to the world’s standards but surrendering to the perfect will of God and allowing him to transform my opinions and values.
A huge burden lifted. I’ve finally got to the heart of the matter! The problem is not my emotions but feeling guilty about not meeting harsh standards that my loving Maker never imposed on me. I need to let myself float free from these oppressive burdens. There is a vast difference between knowing the truth and living it, but the solid foundation for healing had been established.
As I continued exploring, I found myself paying more and more attention to these comparatively plain-looking plants. It was ever so slight but the leaves seemed to reach out to me, point in my direction, and follow me as I moved past. I was ready to dismiss it as an illusion but the thought came, As earth’s plants benefit from sunlight, was this plant able to tap into the lower end of the light spectrum and derive some benefit from my body heat? But why did it make me feel so good after all that trauma?
From the depths of my mind a vague recollection surfaced of having read that grief and trauma release chemicals into the body that can have an adverse effect on one’s mind and body. It was the wildest of theories and probably way off track but I wondered whether this plant was radiating something that breaks down those chemicals.
Words rose from the murky depths of my mind and thrashed around like a drowning man frantically trying to attract the attention of a would-be rescuer. It was a mere fragment of the Bible but the realization struck – more powerfully than I had ever experienced – just how precious and sacred is every snipped of Scripture, and how every portion should be cherished way beyond what the art world reveres as priceless treasures. The words that seized me were, “And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” They kept struggling for my attention and yet I was not quite sure of their significance.
As I continued walking, puzzling over whether that Scripture had even the slightest relevance to what I was experiencing, another intricate water feature came into view. Though quite different from the first, this one, too, seemed almost hypnotic and subtly musical. As I let the intriguing effect captivate me for a few seconds, it swept over my senses like a skilled pianist over ivory and ebony; like the fingers of a masseuse; like the sweet caresses of a lover.
Feeling the need to maximize the use of time, I tried to shake myself out of an almost trance-like state. I moved closer and reached out, letting the water trickle over my fingers. To my surprise, it was delightfully warm. While adjusting to this surprise, I gradually grew aware that it felt unusually oily. I rubbed some between my fingers. In comparison, the water I am used to feels disappointingly thin, almost rough. It was then I noticed under the water – or whatever it was – a cozy hollow covered with a thick, moss-like water plant. A quick double check confirmed that I was alone. Almost before I knew it, I had slipped off my clothes and slid into the inviting water.
I am extremely modest and to do this without the reassurance of locked doors was most out of character. Nevertheless, as I had hoped, the underwater moss was silky soft without being worryingly slippery. As I slipped into the water, tiny bubbles began rising like soda pop. The sensation was peculiarly invigorating. The water was just the right depth for me to recline and be covered up to my chin.
As I drifted into a dreamy contentment, my mind floated back to the stupendous pleasure of the ‘sparklers’ in the celestial palace. I pondered the mystery of how, despite the ecstasy exceeding anything I had ever imagined, it somehow seemed shallow compared with the satisfaction I felt in finally discovering more of the extent to which Christ alone, and never our efforts, make us worthy of access to the majestic Lord of glory.
Suddenly the truth speared my understanding that regardless of what we call them – mountain top experiences, the manifest presence of God, visions, or whatever – spiritual highs can be as dangerously addictive as chemical highs. Any addiction to highs – even godly highs – corrupts; spreading the stench of death and decay to all it touches; putrefying all beauty, and turning the sweetest thing sour. The inevitable result is a shameful loss of all dignity, the squandering of one’s life, the selling of one’s soul for yet another high. It is the road to ruin paved with tinsel; the stinking swamp of despair that is so alluring until the iron jaws of the trap snap shut.
There is no question that we should fervently seek God and his revelation and empowering, but why? So that we might delight him and better serve him, or so that we could boast or avoid the need to hang on by sheer faith, even when everything within and without seems to scream, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
“Count the cost,” warned Jesus.
Who wouldn’t want power from on high if all it took were signs, wonders and thrills? But what if the transformation we need either leads to, or results from, experiences like those of Jesus endured in the wilderness, the garden of Gethsemane and the cross? What if the Spirit’s anointing brings not fame but scorn, and Christlikeness leads not to smugness but servitude?
Who can live a soft life while being a true follower of the one who was ridiculed, rejected and tortured?
Do we seek goosebumps and warm fuzzies, or the guts to take up our cross and follow our crucified Lord to Golgotha? Do we crave God’s glory, or our glory; to put a smile on God’s face, or on our own?
I saw with a clarity that had previously always eluded me that to be loving and wise, God must severely restrict even godly highs, lest they lead to the gnawing emptiness of addiction – a nightmarish slavery to emptiness. Our Maker respects our individuality and knows better than us our differing needs and weaknesses. We seldom realize that sometimes the very thing we imagine we need could end up hurting or even destroying us. Not realizing this, we so easily fall into envy or even resentment towards God when we hear of others claiming to have had amazing experiences with God.
It was then I began to contemplate a minor problem. I had plunged into the water so impulsively that I had not considered having no way to dry myself before sliding back into my clothes. The instant I climbed out of the water what I can only call a warm whirlwind sprang up and I quickly dried. Problem solved. But a new one beckoned. Surely this was not a coincidence. Had I tripped some automated process or was this a direct act of God? A cursory hunt for pressure pads or laser beams left my question unanswered.
While I was wondering how long that oily substance would take to dry and whether it would leave a greasy residue, the exhilarating wind stopped and I found myself snugly dry. My skin felt so fresh that I began to wonder if the oil, instead of being a disadvantage in the drying process, might counter any tendency of repeated wind treatments to give me dry skin.
While pondering how the whirlwind had ceased right on cue, an unsettling thought hit: had the wind somehow been switched on and off by someone spying on me? I anxiously scanned my surroundings. It revealed no peering eyes, but it uncovered plenty of opportunities for paranoia. The garden was too dense for anyone to move off the path, but the flatness of the topography at this point meant that I could see only a few yards from the path. I presumed the vegetation continued beyond my line of sight but for all I knew it could be entirely open back there, allowing a hundred heads to pop up from some back entrance and stare at me whenever they chose. And how could I detect spy cameras?
I quickly dressed, trying to comfort myself with the thought that anyone caring enough to dry me at the appropriate time must be rather benevolent. Despite my best attempts, however, I could not entirely dismiss the possibility of such an incident happening in a horror movie featuring a psycho-killer.
I decided it wouldn’t hurt to pray for protection. Then it dawned that once again I had been ignoring God. I was a bit disgusted with myself to realize that here I was in idyllic surroundings with my every need being met and I still had not thought to thank God and appreciate his loving kindness. I grappled with that for a moment and concluded that no one has ever been taken for granted as much as God has. No one has ever had his love and patience so exploited and abused by so many billions of people. Like self-centered brats, we keep demeaning the Supreme Power, the Ruler of the Cosmos. So often we expect him to bow to our every demand, and we even throw a hissy fit if his infinite wisdom does not line up with our puny thinking. We call him Lord, meaning master, and then treat him as our slave. “Lord, do this. Lord do that.”
As I continued discovering endless new delights in the garden, I pondered this role reversal many of us play with God. Surely our wonderful Lord does not want cold formality. My mind flew back to the King of kings playing with those child parts of emotionally wounded people. And it seems wrong to ration ourselves as to the requests we make of God. I remembered how in his teaching, Jesus kept pleading with us to ask God for everything. There is no question that, as the greatest lover in the universe, God longs to bless us.
While drinking in the beauty of my surrounds, I kept trying to crystallize in my mind why taking God for granted feels so wrong. It cannot be that I should slavishly, or even superstitiously, thank God lest he stop blessing me.
Another pitifully short memory verse (actually, it was not even the full verse) clamored for my attention: “God is love.” I tried to think through the implications. True love is incompatible with being self-absorbed. To love is to delight in someone and want the best for the person. It is focused on the other person. It is, to be other-centered, not self-centered. So, I concluded, the God of infinite love must be continually focused on others. He cannot be self-centered or egotistical. As highlighted by our Savior, he is willing to sacrifice absolutely everything for us. And neither is God insecure. It is not as if he is emotionally deficient and needs to feel appreciated. It cannot be for selfish reasons that he seeks our praise and thanks.
Nevertheless, despite being willing to steel oneself to suffer for the beloved, love is not cold and clinical. It seeks a response. It craves interaction with the person. To my surprise, a new definition of love formed in my mind: to love is to make oneself emotionally vulnerable, exposing oneself to the pain of rejection. Love is risky. I recalled seeing a wall plaque that said something like, “If you love something set it free. If it returns, it is yours forever; if not, it was never yours.” If you maintain iron control over things you might avoid heartache, but to operate in love is to give people permission to crush you.
I marveled that a God who had everything and was totally sufficient in himself would expose himself to all that pain. I flooded with warmth to think God has put aside his self-sufficiency to make himself vulnerable to me, giving me the power to delight him or emotionally hurt him. It was as if I grew several feet taller to think how exceedingly important God has made me by granting me power over his heart – the power to make Omnipotent Lord happy or sad.
It felt as if still more were behind a totally unselfish God wanting my thanks and praise. I reasoned that by preventing us from being self-absorbed, praise and thanksgiving makes us more Godlike. Then the realization gripped me that what makes a lack of gratefulness so tragic is that it stunts us as people and diminishes our capacity to see God’s love and greatness.
This awareness struck me with such force that I began to wonder if, this side of eternity, I could ever grasp how much I have damaged myself, shriveling my capacity to perceive God, by failing to foster a spirit of gratefulness to him.
I looked around me, noting that the farther I walked, the brighter the flower colors and the more exuberant the tone of the garden. Praise and thanksgiving transports me and transforms me, I told myself. It lifts my thoughts from the gutter. Through it, not just my thoughts, but my very life, soars from the trivial to the eternal. It not only lifts my spirits, it lifts my spirit; it not only makes me feel better, it makes me a better person. I wanted to think and pray more about these conclusions but they seemed right.
Although unable to recall at that moment where, or how often, I knew that at least some translations of Psalms speak of magnifying God. That peculiar expression tantalized me. Who can increase infinity? I eventually concluded that while praise cannot make God bigger, it magnifies my ability to behold his glory. Praise sensitizes us to the supernatural. And by empowering us to see God’s power, love, wisdom and so on, it builds our faith.
My thoughts retreated to my encounters with those angelic thugs who wanted me as their pet, and how I had been so pathetic that I only barely managed to escape. Then I remembered Jehoshaphat’s astounding victory over fearsome hordes of enemies by sending the choir into battle ahead of the army. They won by praise and worship. Not a single weapon was used. My mind careened to a peculiar passage near the end of Psalms that speaks of executing vengeance upon God’s enemies with the high praises of God in one’s mouth. Is praise and thanksgiving the forgotten element of spiritual warfare?
I almost leapt internally with the excitement of finding a missing jigsaw piece. I had barely begun to enjoy the elation, however, when a memory threatened to choke me. Into my mind’s eye zoomed the picture of me in that uncomfortable round room trying to sleep, rather than search the Scriptures more deeply.
I had no idea that filthy angel would return so soon! I told myself, trying to struggle free from shame’s stranglehold. Then I recalled Jesus speaking of foolish virgins, lazy servants, and so on; fervently warning over and over about the necessity of being ready at all times. Despite our smugness, to be human is to not know what the next moment might bring. So how dare I, a mere human, goof off, regularly feeling so sure that right now is not the critical moment?
The thought loomed that times when life is easy are not divine invitations to loll around but never-to-be repeated opportunities to spiritually prepare for the next attack. Our spiritual survival – and certainly the extent of our eternal reward – hinges not so much on our response when under attack but on our faithful use of times when there is no danger. Every second we squander is lost forever. We need the attitude of elite soldiers who are relentless in training during times of peace so that they are in peak condition the moment everyone else is taken by surprise. It is not all work – part of our preparation will be relaxation and refreshment and enjoying God – but a key part will be prayer, worship and growing in knowing and living the Word of God.
Then, to my surprise, I began to wonder if snoozing after my Bible study in that room was actually as grave an offense as I had supposed. How much of the condemnation I had felt when caught napping had merely been a devilish attempt to undermine my faith in God’s willingness to empower my efforts to stand up to that despicable angel? Like so much else, definitive answers were in exasperatingly short supply but it began to seem increasingly likely that much of it had indeed been demonic bluff.
Phew! Where are these thoughts coming from? Are these thoughts entirely my own or is God slipping some of them into my mind? Why do I find it so hard to differentiate between my own thoughts and those coming from God? And why hadn’t I seen things with such clarity when on earth?
I began to worry about whether I would ever get back to the planet and era that until recently had been the totality of my experience. Nevertheless, I tried to dismiss the worry and focus on loftier matters.
The dreaded memory returned of how I had felt so weak in the presence of those ugly angels. To my relief I remembered Nehemiah’s refusal to let the people grieve over their sins and, instead, declaring that the joy of the Lord is their strength. One of my tiny memory verses from years ago surfaced: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.” How easy it is to dismiss those words as head-in-the-clouds fanaticism! Perplexingly, however, – I’m tempted to saying infuriatingly – they were penned by the apostle whose repeated whippings, stonings, imprisonments and so on, must surely have kept his feet on the ground.
That word “always” is most annoying. Obeying the Scripture would be a cinch if only it had said rejoice in the Lord sometimes. Why did God have to spoil a perfectly sensible verse? Another ridiculously short memory verse by the same apostle leapt into my consciousness: “Rejoice evermore,” as the old version puts it. That was equally unsettling. The cold-blooded truth is that when things get tough I often act as if my suffering has earned me the right to be miserable. More words from the apostle echoed in the canyons of my mind: “You are not your own, you were bought with a price . . .” I caught myself starting to feel miserable about not being allowed to feel miserable.
I knew putting these Scriptures into practice would be highly challenging but I was just beginning to think I might be edging toward getting an intellectual handle on the importance of rejoicing in every situation when I suddenly remembered what I had so recently discovered about the importance of not suppressing one’s emotions and living in denial. Isn’t rejoicing when you feel miserable living in denial? Instantly, my newfound elation over being able to see things clearly in this place fizzled. I slumped into confusion.
Oh, man! I complained. Is spiritual life really so frustratingly complicated? Why is the Bible filled with almost impossible statements and made even worse by apparent contradictions?
I consoled myself with the thought that we would have little need of a Bible filled with what to us is common sense. We’d have come up with that without divine help. How could a book crammed with the wisdom of an infinite God be genuine unless it mystifies anyone trained in wisdom deduced by finite minds?
The Bible has certainly met that criterion for divine inspiration, but how do I reconcile the apparent contradictions? The time-honored way is to block from one’s mind one of the seemingly contradictory truths and live solely by the other. I probably do that much more than I care to admit to myself but with this particular pair of contradictory truths, each one was now too vivid for me to block out. There must be a balance somewhere.
David was a powerful, battle-hardened warrior. Jeremiah was thick-skinned; divinely hardened against rejection and ostracism. Paul kept pushing himself into joy and rejoicing in the midst of extreme suffering. And yet all of them cried often. Despite my concerted efforts to reconcile all of this, I still found it baffling.
Thoughts had been flying like a whirlwind on a shredded Bible but at this point everything ground to a halt and I was left in brain-numbing bewilderment.
One plant had beautiful, vase-like structures that looked quite sturdy. Wondering what they looked like inside, I gently put my hand around one to tilt it toward me. To my dismay, it snapped off in my hand. I looked inside and found that it was three-fourths filled with fluid. It was as if I were holding a cup in my hand, and there was something peculiarly inviting about that honey-colored fluid.
Could this plant be insectivorous? I reasoned that if these ‘cups’ were designed to trap and digest insects as a nutrient source for the plants, the fluid could be highly poisonous. After considerable internal debate, I dipped my finger in it. It did not sting or feel corrosive. I hesitated, rushed off a text-message-length prayer (maybe shorter) and then recklessly put the tiniest amount to my tongue. As I had hoped, it was honey-sweet. In fact, it was so delicious I wanted to drink my fill of several ‘cups,’ but I held back.
Could it still be poisonous, despite the taste? I recalled back home using poison laced with sugar to attract and kill ants. In that case, the goal was for the ants to take the poison back to their nest and end up killing the entire nest. That could not be any advantage to this plant, I argued. But I had only been thinking of the plant ingesting the insects. What if the purpose were to keep the area free from insects that could somehow damage the plants – perhaps from insects that nest by boring into stems or roots. Then I realized that even if insects go away after drinking the nectar, they could still fertilize the plant’s soil if they died in the near vicinity of the plant. This led to an off-the-wall possibility: what if in this world plants do things not for their own survival advantage but to help other plants?
My yearning to drink this highly tempting nectar kept me debating the whole matter with myself rather than asking God and expecting him to reply. Why do some people seem to hear God so clearly and here am I constantly wondering what to do?
I wondered if it even mattered if it were poisonous, since the end of Mark speaks of safely drinking deadly poison. Then I worried about the controversy over whether that part of Mark belonged to the original text. Then I recalled under Elijah’s ministry (or was it Elisha’s?) poisonous food being safely eaten. So the tiresome debate continued to rage. Sometimes I wish I could just switch off my brain.
Underneath all that mental commotion, however, I still felt confusion gnawing away at me over how anyone could possibly remain emotionally tender and in touch with reality, and yet strong and joyful in the midst of pain and tragedy.
Of course, it was easy to dismiss the whole issue as cultural. People in the Bible lived in a society where it was acceptable for men to cry. It is a safe guess that this affected the upbringing boys received. My stiff-upper-lip upbringing must have been different from theirs and whereas little boys’ emotions are pliable, by now my emotional hang-ups have become hardwired and I am stuck with them for life. Will you join me in feeling sorry for poor me?
That’s too convenient a cop-out to sit comfortably with me. For starters, being joyful was clearly not some type of automatic response for Paul’s original readers, or he would not have had to keep urging them to rejoice. Moreover, if Christ has set me free and if Jesus could talk about being born again as a child of God, why should I be in lifelong bondage to my original birth and upbringing? I might be like an addict for whom breaking a long-established habit is highly challenging, but is the God of the impossible up to the challenge or is he not?
It had taken me ridiculously long, but finally I remembered that the Christian life is meant to be humanly impossible. It is supernatural: a union between us and Almighty God.
I slowly savored that thought, occasionally more actively chewing it, as I kept exploring this botanical wonderland; continually discovering new surprises to marvel at.
Gradually the thought formed that our union with God is like a driver’s union with a car. Just as a car and driver can together achieve humanly impossible speeds and distances, so we can achieve the humanly impossible through our union with the all-powerful Lord.
That was an intriguing twist to a metaphor I had often used. Until then, I had always thought of my life being the car and God being the driver but for my new metaphor to work, God had to be the car. Anyhow, I was sure that the truly spiritual person puts God in the driver’s seat.
I continued walking, still carefully carrying the ‘flower cup.’ I did not have the heart to litter. I knew, of course, it should be biodegradable – assuming there are organisms that perform this function here – but everything was so immaculate. I had not seen one leaf or petal out of place.
If God is both the car and the driver, I’m merely the passenger. I was surprised at how empty and deflated that made me feel. I tried to dismiss the feeling as pride that I needed to kill. Not only was I uncomfortable about being considered a mere passenger, however, it clashed with my experience. If I’m just a passenger, why do I still need the Bible to teach me about emotions and a vast array of other things? Why is the Christian life not simply one decision to hand God the controls and thereafter living a truly godly life is automatic?
Pondering this pushed me to a conclusion so contrary to my timeworn metaphor that it felt like heresy: no matter how spiritual we become, God always puts us in the driver’s seat. He provides the supernaturally powered vehicle and longs to give us the best possible journey by being our driving instructor, navigator and companion. If we yield to God’s guidance, he decides where we should go and sometimes he might even give moment by moment suggestions about route, speed, driving technique and so on. Nevertheless, we always remain at the controls, with the power to ignore him.
My union with God is about slipping into his car so that I can do what is humanly impossible and then daily yielding to his wisdom as to how to drive this powerful vehicle.
Life is far more complex than learning to drive, however. As I pondered the issues, it seemed to me that we Christians consciously live part of our lives God’s way, but we live many aspects of our lives the way we always have. In fact, we are often unaware that a better way even exists. The practical reality is that there are just too many facets of our lives needing change for us to attend to all of them at once. If we keep growing spiritually, the Christian life should be a continual adventure throughout our time on earth, as we find ourselves repeatedly surprised by discovering still more ways in which our lives can be improved and become more Godlike. Each discovery is just the beginning. We must then courageously decide to attempt the new method and then endure the long mistake-ridden process of learning, until we become proficient at it. Once mastered, however, each transformation liberates us, bringing us more peace and fulfillment than we had ever imagined.
I lazily mulled the thought, having no conception of the horrors awaiting me.