I have no idea how long it was before I finally became aware of my furry friend nuzzling me. I felt wiped out but so much better than after my ignominious first exit from the palace, heaven or whatever it was.|
My uncertainty about the nature of that place got me distracted again. If it were heaven, where was God? Where was the throne? Where were the redeemed? Shouldn’t there have been some seraphim and cherubim somewhere? Was it just a meeting place for angels?
Hungry mosquitos were less annoying than all the unanswered questions buzzing around in my head. If only I could shoo them away and focus on more important things. But what things are more important? Oh no! More questions.
The cute little critter kept acting as if he wanted me to follow him again. I heaved myself up and looked around. To my alarm, the creature we had been riding was nowhere to be seen. It was a sickening blow. To be upset about having one’s new car stolen was one thing but, to me, this special animal had become far more than a thing or a means of transport. I felt both robbed and abandoned. Further complicating my pain and bewilderment is that it was as if I had lost a significant part of me.
I could have chosen to think of all the astonishing things I had recently enjoyed – even now I was surrounded by wonders. Instead, despite having just had the greatest spiritual high of my life, I railed at God like a spoilt child.
No one had consulted me as to whether I wanted to leave earth and all humanity, find myself with only animals to relate to and then end up more attached to one of them than I ever dreamed possible, only to lose him. All the other losses throughout my life flashed into my mind. I raged. “God is cruel!” I screeched louder than I had thought possible. Instantly, all of nature fell deathly silent.
As I vented my fury, the little critter hopped nearer. That surprised me. Instead of being scared off by my rage, he looked up at me, as if puzzled. We stared at each other for what seemed several minutes, as I thought about my outburst.
What is happening to me? I’m normally so rational.
I had known people who were spiritually and emotionally up and down like an elevator but I had prided myself on being pretty stable. “We are called to live by faith, not feelings,” I used to tell them. “Feelings are fickle; God is not.” I was sure that was good advice that helped stabilize me but here was I failing to take my own advice and lashing out like a madman at the kindest person in the universe. I was as smart as a shipwreck survivor using an axe to vent his frustration on the life raft that is his only hope of safety.
Admittedly, I had had exceptionally intense experiences of late that would test anyone’s stability. Nevertheless, I had also enjoyed so many positive things. I could only admire those who endure repeated tragedies and, by having the sense to distinguish between friend and foe, continue to find comfort in God, no matter how numb with shock they feel and how distant that makes him feel.
The staring contest ended with my fluffy friend showing off his gorgeous tail, and setting off along the trail. Anxious to lose this companion as well, I followed.
Since leaving earth – or to put it more like it felt: since having earth and every sense of security wrenched from me – I had been plagued by an ever-growing mountain of unanswered questions that threatened to come crashing down on top of me. The most bewildering question of all, however, was how could I so quickly plummet from an astonishing revelation of the wonder and perfection and goodness of God, to thinking him cruel?
It seems inevitable that for someone who had only known earth, alien worlds would contain puzzling things. What was particularly perplexing, however, was that this time the inexplicable was not part of an alien world, but part of me that had stowed away and come with me from earth. It must have been hiding within me for years. Like an undetected cancer growing within, its discovery might be alarming but one’s well-being hinges on dealing with it.
There was no denying that leaving earth – suddenly and inexplicably losing everything I had ever known – was traumatic. Losing the creature that had carried me so tenderly, however, went beyond losing one more thing. It had triggered an avalanche of memories of other losses earlier in my life. Apparently, I had resolved and recovered from those losses far less than I ever imagined. As I dared think about it, I realized that instead of prayerfully thrashing those things out with God, I had buried them. Peculiarly, such cowardice is often touted as being macho. More likely, the real reason was that, deep down, I feared that maybe God is not as wise or loving as I had hoped.
As I changed my focus, my spirits pulled out of their nosedive and soared heavenward. Self-pity transmuted into adoration.
After a while, my fluffy guide turned into my personal trainer by picking up the pace. I had felt a little dazed earlier but strength was returning to me and I began to run to keep the little fella in sight; wondering why I was even bothering. It was probably just a coincidence but I recalled reading of studies suggesting that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants.
As I continued running, I broke into a slight sweat. Suddenly, what looked rather like a swarm of pestering flies encircled my head. I was about to shoo them away when I noticed that their wings were fanning me in a most refreshing manner. I decided to put up with the flies until they started annoying me by landing on me. That never happened. I cooled and they flew off as suddenly as they had arrived.
I told myself it was merely coincidental that they arrived the instant I had the slightest need for cooling and left the moment I no longer needed it. Nevertheless, in a spurt of madness, I felt like royalty – as if all of nature existed to serve me, tending to my every need like worker bees treat their queen. The thought humbled me, but I hastily pulled myself together. I was an alien in what might still turn out to be a dangerous environment. This was no time for delusion. And yet, despite the protests of my intellect, I strode on with a new dignity and oozed a still-deeper tenderness toward every plant and creature I saw; as if they were my precious, loving subjects to be cherished and protected.
Then it came to me that I would not have broken into a sweat had I been riding instead of running. Did that mean I would have missed this moving experience?
A strange but beautiful sensation enveloped me. I have no name for it. Driven by my longing to make this priceless encounter as real to you as it was to me, I have reheated the leftovers of the memory and, like a gourmet savoring the finest cuisine, tried to discern the ingredients. An element or two might have eluded me, but there was no mistaking the strong presence of holy awe. Masterfully blended with this, however, were other ingredients, transforming this sacred awakening into something truly incomparable. Ecstasy was one ingredient. Humility was another. And it was sprinkled with a deliciously warm coating of cozy security.
I still mourn my failure to adequately convey the experience. Here’s my final, quite different attempt: describing it would have to include words like rapturous, ethereal, exquisite, beatific, wondrous, heavenly, matchless . . .
I walked with a new spring in my step until suddenly stopping dead. In the middle of the path was a swarm of ants. In their midst was a pile of cherry-like objects. Just moments before, I had discovered I was feeling a little hungry and the thought of cherries now heightened my hunger. Without moving my feet, lest I injure an ant, I squatted down to inspect the scene. Teams of ants were carrying individual ‘cherries’ and adding them to the pile. Then one team brought a ‘cherry’ right up to my feet and gently rocked it back and forth as though they were offering it to me. I took it, then peered underneath, expecting to see ants dangling from it. That’s strange! Each of them must have let go the instant I took it. It certainly looked like fruit. Using my fingernail as a makeshift blade, I tore it apart. It was juicy and fleshy with no stone or obvious seeds. Was it edible?
I recalled once being advised that if faced with starvation and I found some unknown berries, I should rub one on some sensitive skin, such as my armpit, and see if I have an allergic reaction. It was claimed this would give a valuable clue as to whether the possible food source is edible. That sounded messy and I assumed one would need to wait quite some time to be sure the skin does not react, and even then it would not be foolproof.
I looked up, and to my surprise the animal I had been following was right in front of me, looking inquisitively at me. Almost as soon as he caught my eye, he ate a ‘cherry,’ then looked up at me, then ate another. While this was happening, I noticed that the ants were leaving.
I hauled up from my memory times as a child when I sampled the exotic fruits of ornamental trees and shrubs. I had felt secure because I always waited until I had observed birds eating the fruit. It was not until years later that I heard to my horror that birds can feed off things that are poisonous to humans.
I had already taken enormous risks in this alien world and each had apparently paid off. Dare I take yet another risk? It certainly looks good to eat. I winced as it shattered my consciousness that Eve had uttered almost those exact words. Yes, even Eden had its forbidden fruit. At last I realized that yet again I was on the verge of making a small but possibly critical decision without bothering to ask the only One who knows everything and therefore the only One whose guidance is fully trustworthy.
So I prayed.
My furry friend looked at the ‘cherries,’ then at me, as if trying to urge me to eat them. I tentatively licked the juice on my fingers left from when I had opened one. It was delicious. Tossing caution aside I hungrily gobbled handfuls until none was left.
I smiled to myself, At last I’ve found some ants I’d be happy to picnic with! Then I wondered if I had done the right thing. Was I headed for a serious belly ache, or worse?
The animal was off again, waving his fluffy tail in the air as he pranced along the trail. I followed, careful not to tread on any remaining ants, but all had left. I pursued the animal, pondering how my needs had apparently once again been met by a surprising coincidence.
I idly wondered if I would have noticed those gift-bearing ants from atop that silky-haired lookout. Then a disturbing thought hit: could God trust me with special experiences if I were to think him cruel whenever it was time to move on? Am I little better than a child who wants nothing but ice cream and candy and resents his parents for giving him a healthy diet? Could I put God in no-win situations where he either has to withhold blessings I don’t understand, or I’ll turn against him?
There was no denying that it had hurt to lose that beast with whom I had experienced an indescribable bond. Even now, I missed him. As distressing as the loss was, however, it had exposed things within me that needed serious attention. Even though, on one level, the loss left me feeling as if something were missing, I could tell that coming to terms with what it had exposed somehow left me more whole and empowered than I had ever been.
As I continued walking, the embarrassing memory returned of having accused God of cruelty. I thought of how, rather than dealing with past losses and hurts by talking them out with God, burying them had let them accumulate dangerously so that they could gang up on me in a moment of weakness. Thankfully, my tailspin had occurred in such an idyllic place that it is was hard to keep denying God’s goodness. Had it happened in more taxing circumstances, it could have been disastrous.
I winced at my failure, and wanted to shove it out of my mind by thinking of happier things. Then it struck me: failing to confront issues that hurt or embarrassed me had become such an ingrained habit that even while the dangers of burying such things were fresh in my mind, I was about to repeat that very mistake.
Earlier, giving myself a break from my inner turmoil in order to draw close to God and gain a new perspective had empowered me to resolve the problem. That is decidedly different, however, from trying to live in permanent denial of an issue so that no effort is made to resolve it. One approach is the road to genuine peace and healing. The other is a sinister counterfeit that demotivates us from getting the help we need.
Continually stirring up my anger, frustration, worry, grief and sense of loss would have only perpetuated the problem. On the other hand, burying a problem and leaving it perpetually unresolved would be like living with a time bomb.
I had a choice: I could shrink in shame from having falsely accused God, and waste the experience by doing all I could to push it from my memory, or I could try to turn it into a stepping stone to greater things by learning from it.
Since the latter seemed harder but better, I sent a quick, wordless prayer to God for help, like a knowing glance between the closest of friends.
No sooner had I done this than I recalled scientific studies confirming that if we walk in an open field, hoping to reach a distant landmark while refusing to look at it (such as keeping our eyes closed) we would end up wandering around in circles and never getting where we wanted, no matter how high our confidence that we were making great progress. Before I could dismiss this as trivia, I was startled by the realization that the same would happen if deprived of vital clues by continuously looking at myself in a handheld mirror. It hit me that it would make no difference whether, while staring at a mirror, I were admiring myself, getting angry with myself, or seeking to improve myself. Regardless of how vain or supposedly noble one’s intentions, fixating on oneself ends pathetically. That shocked me even more. Instantly, I saw where this was heading. No matter what our motivation, we will end up spiritually lost, if we keep looking at ourselves rather than fixing our eyes on God.
To keep focusing on myself – be it my grievances, my opinion, my anger, or whatever – is no smarter than angrily punching a wall over and over and getting mad that my hands hurt. The exciting thing, however, is that realizing what I am doing to myself reveals the simple, though not necessarily instant, solution.
I had just begun reveling in that insight, when my spirits leapt higher still with yet another divinely inspired eureka episode. As empowering as it is to fix our eyes on God, rather than on self, there is an even more life-transforming way of viewing things. The thought exploded with what seemed like supernatural clarity that wonders happen when we begin seeing problems through God’s eyes, instead of our own. Closing my eyes to a problem will never bring closure. Neither will changing my focus from the internal to the external, unless it becomes a leg in the journey of opening myself up to God and moving away from self-centeredness to being God-centered.
With that understanding coming with what seemed like supernatural force, you might have expected more from me but I fared no better than Moses who, in the very presence of a bush that burned supernaturally, succumbed to doubt and fear over doing what God asked.
Niggling doubts did not have a feeding frenzy over whether the universe’s Architect is smarter than I am. It seems a no-brainer that he alone can see not just the big picture but the infinite picture, including not merely the immediate ramifications but the eternal implications of every decision. If he truly is smarter, it should come as no surprise if I often do not understand his reasoning. Surely, I can expect to often disagree with a mind-bogglingly superior being and that no matter how adamant I am that he must be wrong, it will eventually turn out that he was right.
No matter what the logic, however, letting go of self feels reckless. Believing in God’s superior intelligence is easy compared with believing that he loves me more that I love myself and that he wants what is in my best interests even more than I do. What makes that hard to believe is that although I am not always impressed with myself, I know precisely how I feel and I love myself enormously in that I passionately care about what happens to me. Does the infinite Lord really have the intellectual capacity to focus on me as if I were the only person in a lonely universe? Is his love truly infinite and flawless? Is he so warm and personal that alongside him humans are the cold, indifferent and impersonal ones?
I can accept that there are ways in which God knows me better than I know myself. There are aspects of my infancy I have forgotten, I do not know all the molecules my body is comprised of, nor exactly how my brain or digestive system works, nor do I know everything people say about me behind my back. A full list of ways God knows me better than I do would be extensive. But do God’s abilities extend beyond useful facts and knowing my every thought to knowing precisely how I feel?
That’s harder to believe because how I feel is so important to me and we all know that such understanding is beyond the reach of any human, no matter how much some may long to know us. The inability of anyone to truly get inside my head makes me feel so isolated and not understood that I feel the need to do what no one else can and fill the void by focusing on my hurts, fears, hopes, confusion and so on.
But being so self-absorbed stifles me. What if I am not nearly as isolated as I think? What if God knows and cares so utterly that I can confidently leave those things in his capable hands? Then I could truly live.
Beyond even the highly prized teachings of Jesus, his life and sacrificial death insist that God not only knows what is best but is selflessly devoted to giving it to us, if we let him. We could trust a God like that enough to let go of self and let him take care of us. But is that God real?
Despite unanswered questions, thoughts kept flowing. To see things as God sees them is to see them as they truly are. The inevitable result is that our spirits will soar from languishing in self-pity to rejoicing in God; from sorrow to the highest joy. Nothing transforms us so powerfully. Lies keep us miserable. Divine truth shatters those lies.
Inspired by this, I looked to God for understanding of what had caused me to slip up so badly.
I now know, of course, that I eventually returned to earth and was not permanently separated from my own species. I had no such knowledge back then, however. For all I knew, it could have been permanent. There are always holes in our knowledge, such as not knowing the future and how God will stagger us by turning what seem utter disasters into gloriously happy endings. Not having the infinite intelligence of God, we often cannot imagine how this could even be possible. Nor can we peer behind the scenes into the spirit world and see the role of God’s spiritual enemies and how God overcomes evil with good. No human has any hope of predicting all the complex chains of events triggered by a single action, nor of grasping what must be temporarily tolerated in order to achieve the greatest good in a world that is in continual rebellion against God’s loving ways.
Faith in the love and goodness of God, however, stabilizes us and keeps us safe. By filling the holes in our knowledge, faith stops foolishness and groundless accusations against God from flooding in and sinking us.
I had reason to be disappointed with myself. Despite being immersed in signs of God’s goodness, my faith had sprung a leak. Real faith does not need the slightest sign.
I was in worse shape than I had thought, however. Just when I was beginning to think how special I must be to be granted these insights, my smugness was shattered by the realization that I was being babied. Receiving answers so quickly and effortlessly meant God was treating me as spiritually incompetent. Rather than trust me to use to use my faith as I should to doubt-proof gaps in my knowledge, God chose to mollycoddle me. Apparently, he considered my ability to hold on in faith as being so pathetic that I needed instant answers to stay afloat.
That sobered me. In fact, it floored me. Since my teens I had prided myself on my ability to think things through, only to now find myself totally outclassed by those who have simple, childlike faith. I felt like someone who had devoted his life to accumulating gold, only to discover his supposed wealth was nothing but fool’s gold and he was actually poorer than those he had pitied.
I was so stunned I could barely think for several minutes.
Eventually, I managed to pull myself together sufficiently to conclude that, whether motivated by fear, pain-avoidance, or simply laziness, keeping oneself ignorant is foolhardy. Half-truths are dangerous but the full truth will always glorify God and lift us by filling us with love and adoration for him. In the famous words of Jesus, truth sets us free. We play a critical role in this, however. Seek and you will find, said Jesus. We must let go of resentment and self-pity, and reach out to God. In the words of a scripture that warms my heart, draw near to God and he will draw near to you. We should seek God for answers with the tenacity of the widow in Jesus’ parable who kept pestering the judge because she knew he could help.
It hit me hard to realize that although I had prided myself on doing this, I had only done it some of the time. Too often, I had given up and imagined I could get away with burying things in the too-hard basket. What flabbergasted me, however, is that even after the humiliation of discovering this mistake, I was still only half way through grasping the full truth. Moreover, the half I had prided myself on sometimes doing is actually the least important part.
What I had given too little attention to was that not having an infinite IQ means there will always be gaps in my understanding that only faith can plug up and keep me afloat. It is critical that I learn as quickly as possible to live by raw faith so that I have no need of answers dumbed down to accommodate human intelligence for me to be sure of God’s love and wisdom and goodness.
I had been thinking myself so smart, faithful and spiritual, only to now discover I had been doing barely one fourth of what I should – and making life needlessly difficult for myself as a result. What is even more disconcerting is that I was yet to discover that this is typical of me.
Should I beat myself up over this, or feel sorry for myself? Or would that be further evidence of self-obsession and of the need to end my toxic love affair with self? Should I drag my eyes off myself enough to actually feel sorry for God who has had to endure my incompetence? Should I melt with adoration over his astonishing patience, or even be walking on air with gratitude for him somehow managing to get a little truth through to me despite my pride-induced resistance to it?
I was yet to come to a firm conclusion on many things. What I was sure of, however, is that no matter how deceitfully addictive it is, wallowing in self is miserably inferior to soaring in God. This is true even emotionally and in the here and now. Ironically, dying to self is even in our own selfish interest, though I dare not dwell on that, any more than I would risk giddiness when looking down when climbing high.
To see as God sees, is to see from a mountain top. There are those who are so sure their way is best that they choose to see no further than the swamp of self. What if we do not have to condemn ourselves to such a fate, however? What if, through Christ, any of us can leave behind those oppressive limitations and by faith see as God sees? An intense resolve welled within me to be such a person.
At that moment, to leave self behind and be driven by raw faith in the goodness and wisdom of God seemed like the ultimate adventure. I promised myself to do all I could to maintain such faith, no matter how bleak things might get.
I had no idea, however, what horrors lay ahead.