THE REDUCTION OF THE I
“He must increase, I must decrease” These words of course were spoken by John the Baptist in the waning part of his ministry. I have become fascinated with John the Baptist in the last few months. The progression of the self in John’s life offers for me a clue of what God is doing in me (and for me) in the midst of all of this agony.
John began his public ministry with great fanfare and spectacular success.
He appeared on the scene, a wild man in the desert eating locusts and honey, shouting both judgment and redemption, his ‘I’ central to the message itself. “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness . . .. I baptize in water. Among you stands one you do not know. He comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”
Even as he pointed forward to Jesus he was still center stage, his self strutting like a supporting actor on stage before the star’s big entrance. His ‘I’ was huge.
I imagine John the Baptist felt his importance in God’s plan acutely. He knew he was the emissary, the herald of the Messiah and that everyone would always associate himself with the beginning of the Messianic reign.
The MESSIAH. We cannot fully grasp what that meant to a Jew. With their rich oral and written tradition of being God’s people. The incredible promises of the prophets. They interpreted all of the Messianic promises so as to apply to themselves, to this world.
Consider Isaiah chapter 60. “The wealth of the nations will come to you. (‘O baby!’ they all thought.) . . .. They will bring gold and frankincense, (Does anyone remember the stable?) . . . Surely the coastlands will wait for me; and the ships of Tarshish come first, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the Lord your God, because he has glorified you . . .. For the nation and the kingdom, which will not serve you, will perish . . .. The sons of those who afflicted you will come bowing down to you . . .. “
Check it out for yourself, fantastic promises of conquest and riches. (Incidentally, if the Messiah would have fulfilled these Scriptures in this earthly fashion The Jews would have simply become another oppressive Roman Empire.)
Into the midst of this mistaken interpretation John spoke. Inspired by the Holy Spirit John said the right things yet potentially dreamed the wrong dreams. I imagine that his ‘I’ saw itself as the herald of the Messiah, perhaps a captain in his conquering army, maybe a Governor or another position of importance in the new order.
He didn’t have the slightest idea who Jesus would really turn out to be. The ‘Suffering Servant’ was NOT an interpretation the Jews entertained about the Messiah.
John was convinced, backed up by his internal, personal calling from the Holy Spirit, (a calling incidentally that he received in the womb, “Behold,” Elizabeth said “The baby within me leapt for joy at the sound of your greeting.”) that Jesus would be a conquering man of war like Moses or David and that he would quickly crush the Romans and set Himself up as the Everlasting Emperor of the world.
A friend of mine pointed out that John lived exclusively in his head. The dreams and interpretations of his own life were both formed, and lived out in his head. While wholeheartedly doing what God had called him to do, his flesh ‘filled in the blanks’ and his fantasy life was rich with what he himself would become in the Messianic reign.
Instead, for John, there was this.
Most of his followers left him.
The crowds of people ignored him, quickly recognizing the power and authority of Jesus’ ministry . . . (John never raised anyone up from the dead, never fed the hungry listeners.)
Jesus himself never invited John to ‘come, follow me.’ When John’s political impotency became evident Herod imprisoned him, only bringing him out of his cell now and again as a buffoon, a party diversion. A jester to laugh at.
As John’s I slowly but steadily eroded in the prison, doubt began to gnaw at his dreams. Jesus was not behaving at all like the scriptures said He would. Was John wasting his life? He knew God had called him as herald to the Messiah, Why was Jesus not overthrowing the Romans? (Why is Jesus not healing me? . . . You?)
John knew that HE was ‘THE VOICE,’ crying in the wilderness. He was important, his life can not be simply wasted in prison, he MUST know, he must plan an escape, go back to the desert, become central again, and preach the old message until Messiah comes. ‘The true Messiah would never allow his herald to languish in prison.’ John may have thought. Finally driven to distraction by disappointment and disillusionment He sent one of his last followers to Jesus. “Are you really the one?”
This question plagues me at times. ‘Are you really the one?’ “Don’t you know? Can’t you see my desperation? I, (there’s that ‘I’ again) am yours, spirit, soul, and body. I have sacrificed my life in service to you. I have followed as hard and as faithfully as I can and you treat me like this? Jesus, are you really the one?”
This process is essential.
THIS PROCESS IS ESSENTIAL
Jesus said a rich man cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. It is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus wasn’t referring to sewing. Neither was he referring exclusively to material riches. There is a ‘richness’ in our souls, a richness to the temporal that is entirely distracting and ultimately negative. . Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The eye of the needle was a ‘gate’ into the city. A very narrow, short gate only large enough for one man bent double, to pass through. Three or four men could defend this gate against an army. Generally it was used only at night.
For a camel to ‘pass through the eye of the needle,’ it must first be entirely unloaded, then forced to its knees, then made to crawl in order to go through. This is not ‘natural’ behavior for a camel. Many camels are not able to submit to this process. They simply can’t submit themselves to the crawl. They spit, and buck, and won’t move.
These camels must spend the night outside the safety of the walls in danger from lions and thieves. It is impossible to ‘drag’ them through. The choice of humility, submission and safety is theirs alone.
Can you imagine the ‘submitted camel,’ hurting on its knees crawling through the eye of the needle towards safety and shelter pleading with its master . . . ‘Are you really . . . . . . the one?’
John, (and you and I) was going through the eye of the needle here. Traveling from the outer periphery of the self proud and encumbered by its own sense of non-contingency, its own inflated, self centered importance, “I am the ‘ship of the desert.’” Traveling from the wastelands outside the city, through the abject humility of the ‘eye of the needle’ of suffering, in order to at last arrive through submission and pain into the safety of the sheltering arms of the Father.
It is significant to me that eventually John the Baptist was be-headed. The life of the head must die.
In this process of personal suffering I have felt that essential parts of my personality, indeed, essential parts of my very inner being are being ground off of me. Parts that I can not afford to lose. Parts that do not seem ‘removable’ without irreparable damage done to my ‘psyche.’ I’m beginning to find, and trust, that nothing truly irreparable can be removed from me.
Chronic pain can only strip so deeply. There are deep ‘rooms’ within my heart that pain can not touch or even disturb. Unfortunately, (or perhaps fortunately), pain leads me to, no, pushes me to the threshold of these doors. Within these rooms only two people are allowed, God, and me.
These areas in my being are definitely not in the realm of the intellect.
The ‘I’ in the head, so busy, so worried, so concentrated on itself is relatively unimportant. To go one step further, this head, this, ‘I’, must, must, must, must be reduced.
The heart must come into its own.
A very old Christian devotional writer, Jeanne Guyon, in her book Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ has this to say about the self.
‘The ultimate stage of Christian experience is the Divine Union. Meditation will not bring about Divine Union; neither will your love, nor worship, nor your devotion, nor your sacrifice. Nor does it matter how much light the Lord gives you. It will take an act of God to make union a reality. In the Old Testament the Scripture says, ‘No man shall see God and live.”(Ex. 33:20) If your prayer still contains your own life, that prayer cannot see God. Your life will not know the experience of union with HIS life. All that is of your doing, all that comes from your life, even your most exalted prayer, must first be destroyed before union can come about. All the prayers that proceed from your mind are merely preparations for bringing you to a passive state; any and all active contemplation on your part is also just preparation for bringing you to a passive state. They are preparations. They are not the end. They are a way to the end.
The end is union with God!
You will recall that John tells us in Revelation 8:1 that there was silence in heaven. This is a picture of the center of the inmost part of man. In that place all must be hushed to silence when the majesty of God appears.
The effort of the self must be stilled. But even more! The very existence of the self must be destroyed.
There is something in the Universe which is the very opposite of God; it is the self. The activity of the self is the source of all the evil nature as well as all the evil deeds of man. On the other hand, the loss of the selfhood in the soul increases the purity of the soul! In fact, the soul’s purity is increased in direct proportion to the loss of self!
As long as you employ your self-nature in any way, some faults will continue to exist in you. But after you depart from your selfhood, no faults can exist, and all is purity and innocence.
It was the entrance of the self, which came into the soul as a result of the fall, that established a difference between the soul and God.
How can two things so opposite as the soul and God ever be united? How can the purity of God and the impurity of man ever be made one? How can the simplicity (or singleness) of God and the multiplicity (endless fickleness) of man ever melt into one element?
Certainly much more is required than just the efforts that you can make.
What, then, is necessary for union to be achieved? A move on the part of Almighty God himself. This alone can ever accomplish union.
For two things to become one, the two must have similar natures. For instance, the impurity of dirt cannot be united with the purity of gold. Fire has to be introduced to destroy the dross and leave the gold pure. This is why God sends a fire to the earth (it is called his wisdom) to destroy all that is impure in you. Nothing can resist the power of that fire. It consumes everything. His wisdom burns away all the impurities in a man for one purpose: To leave him fit for Divine Union.
There is impurity in you. More than you could ever conceive. And it is fatal to union with God. But your Lord burns to be one with you, so he will consume the dross. (Do not be surprised when this actually happens.)
What is the name of this impurity? Self. Self is the source of all defilement, and it prevents any alliance with purity! The rays of the sun may shine upon mire, but those rays will never be united with the mire.
God wishes to make your soul pure. He purifies it by His Wisdom just as a refiner purifies metal in the furnace. Fire is the only thing which can purify gold.
Again, the fire that consumes us, utterly, is his highest wisdom.
This fire gradually consumes all that is earthly; it takes out all foreign matter that separates these things from the gold.
The fire seems to know that the earthly mixture (of the self) cannot be changed into gold. The fire must melt and dissolve this dross by force so that it can rid the gold of every alien particle. Over and over again, the gold must be cast back into the furnace until it has lost every trace of pollution. Oh, how many times the gold is plunged back into the fire. Far, far more times than seems necessary. Yet you can be sure the forger sees impurities no one else can see. The gold must be returned to the fire again and again until positive proof has been established that it can be no further purified.
There comes a time, at last when the goldsmith can find no more mixture that adulterates the gold. When the fire has perfected purity, or should I say simplicity, the fire no longer touches it. If the gold remained in the furnace for an eon, its spotlessness would not be improved upon nor its substance diminished!
So you see, God’s justice, and God’s wisdom must come like a pitiless and devouring fire. That fire destroys all that is earthly. The fire destroys the sensual, the carnal, and all self-activity.
All this purging is necessary before the soul can be united to its God.
You can be sure dear reader, that you will never be motivated enough to allow this purging process to happen to you! Man, by his nature, is very reluctant to submit to such a (painful) transformation. All of us are greatly enamored with self and very fearful of its destruction You can be sure that you would never consent if it were not that God takes it upon himself to act upon you . . . Oh it is true that when Your Lord actually began burning, destroying, and purifying, you did not recognize the hand of the Lord in your life. You certainly did not recognize the operation as something good. You had the opposite impression!
Instead, you saw all that beautiful gold in you turning black in the fire rather than becoming bright as you had expected. You stood looking at the circumstances around you that were producing all that tragedy in your life. You thought all the purity in your life was being lost.
If, in that moment, the Lord had come and asked for your active consent, at best you would hardly have been able to give it. It is more likely that you would not have been able to give consent at all.
There is something that you can do at times like those, however. You can remain firm in a passive consent, enduring as patiently as possible all that God has introduced into your life.
It may be true that you cannot give to the Lord your active consent in such a dark and difficult hour, but neither are you able to put an obstruction in his way. You cannot say “yes” You cannot say “No.”
What can you do?
Pressed between these two points, you find that you are capable of doing nothing. In such a situation you have given the Lord your passive consent! God is not usurping when he then assumes full power and total guidance.”
The most selfish central ‘I’ in the world is a newborn baby. A baby is completely unaware that anything else exists. All a baby knows is need. All he knows is Mommy and Mommy sacrificing all that she has for him. The middle of the night . . . Baby is hungry, or fussy, or bored.. He screams . . .. . The self, central must be cared for!! Mommy comes. Maturity for the baby is learning slowly that others exist. That Mommy gets busy and the ‘I’ must wait. This process of the reduction of the ‘I’ begins very early in his life.
Psalm 131 says, “Lord my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty. Neither do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me. Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the lord from this time forth and forever.”
I have watched with interest the process of ‘weaning’ in my own children. This is the very first test of ‘faith’ for most people. The loved baby has entirely ‘gotten his way’ in every single instance up until now. Hunger, the breast, dirty diapers, immediately cleaned. He cries, abracadabra Mommy comes to hold and feed him.
Now for the first time the pain of being denied a perceived and comfortable good is thrust rudely into his life. He is hungry, he cries, instead of the warm sweet milk of the breast, a cold hard spoon full of glop is unceremoniously deposited in his mouth. Crying in hunger and frustration he spits out this ‘solid food’ and throws a tantrum for the breast. Mommy, deeply desiring the very best for her baby, and knowing the nutritional value of solid food calmly ignores this outburst, and timing it perfectly, shoves a spoonful of glop in his mouth at the end of a breath forcing him to swallow. ‘O betrayed!’ How could Mommy do this!
After this manipulated, unwilling feeding, Mommy holds him tight and loves him dearly as he cries and cries for the breast. “’I’ must have It.” He must think. What a little death this must seem like to the baby! This is the single most painful process he has been through yet. “Why o why can’t I have the breast?” he thinks, and throws another tantrum. Inevitably, after several weeks of this unfair treatment he finally yields, finally ‘breaks’ and plaintively cries himself to sleep on Mommy’s ‘chest.’
The baby cannot now ‘engage Mommy’s mind.’ There is no verbal communication possible between mother and child. The little mind is not able to speak yet. (How can I imagine that any of my thoughts can be interesting to the Creator of light and time itself? On an intellectual level I cannot ‘engage his mind.’ All I can do is commune with Him.) “Like a weaned child I have stilled my soul within me.” The ‘breast’ has been transformed into a ‘chest’ for the infant. At this point the baby is a little older, a little more suited to socialization. Now the baby wants Mommy for the love of it, not the milk of it. He has taken his first step toward real love.
How strange and wonderful that even these early steps must be taken ‘through the eye of the needle.’
We must become convinced of our superfluousness. We must come to the place of realizing our depended-ness. That in the final analysis nothing depends upon my ‘I’, and that God, as inexorable and unstoppable as a glacier creeping toward an old tree will uproot me.
He WILL ravish me with his love. Song of Solomon says “I am my beloved’s, and His desire is for me . . .. Listen, my beloved! Behold, he is coming, climbing on the mountains, leaping on the hills! . . .. My beloved responded and said to me, Arise my darling, my beautiful one, and come along, come away with me for the winter is past, The rain is over and gone. The flowers have already appeared in the land; the time has come for pruning the vines, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in the land.”
He truly is the “Great Lover.” He will, one way or another at last be truly first in my life, at any cost to Himself, for if God is with us when we suffer, then He Himself suffers in us. I can choose, through acceptance and continual worship, to experience the full consciousness of His presence, His ‘joined-ness.’ His one-ness to and with me becomes more perfect, more complete.
Every last inch of pain that I go through is all part of the weaning process. That ‘I’ should be reduced . . . That ‘I’ can be weaned from myself and that God’s compassion be birthed in me instead.
Ultimately He Himself pays the full price of the ‘reduction of my I’ within His own being. The ‘suffering God’ within me bears it all, absorbs it all, feels it all, and knows it all. Not even one of my smallest thoughts escapes His notice. The only choice that I have, the only response I can make is Job’s, or Job’s wife’s. Acceptance, or cursing.
I choose acceptance.
Weeping, I choose acceptance.
Pain produces in us a disinterest in this world. Pain reveals the emptiness of riches and strips the wealthy and the bankrupt of all pride. The millionaire and the skid row bum moan in the exact same tones, it is one of the great levelers and equalizers of all flesh.
As the years have passed and the “permanent nature’ of this condition of pain becomes more of a certainty, something that will always cling to my flesh, pain as a way of life, as a constant companion I find that acceptance is becoming a weary way of life.
The truly exciting part about it is the inner life. The ‘reduction of the I’ carries with it the seeds of the freedom of the Spirit.
Nothing on earth releases the presence of God within the human soul-heart like the abandonment of the self.
The question you might be asking is; Why do it? Why not just leave all this behind, ignore it all and . . . Watch T.V. ? “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
If you truly are suffering, (and really; who among us isn’t?) This is insufficient.
A numbness waits like a lion beside the path down that road . . . A sediment of the spirit whose only outlet is addiction (carrying with itself a whole new level of inner pain) is the inevitable end and companion to the person who chooses this path.
Are you really alive?
How can you tell?
Is your soul alive?
What will you say and do in the moments after your last breath of earth air?
You MUST deal with this area of your inner being. It is as insistent and constant of a need as food.
As a child you cried for your mother even when you weren’t physically hungry. How is it that now you ignore your Spirits cry for God? Your spirit must be fed. It is so hungry. It must be nurtured. It must be allowed to grow, and roam, and question, but most importantly, rest in the Shepherd’s peace-giving arms.