Chapter 10: Gloom

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I regained consciousness.

The curiosity – even the need – to know if I had been transported to some other world kept mounting within me, but I kept my eyes firmly closed. Something of still greater significance gripped me. So much had been distracting me but I felt compelled for my own sanity to seize this moment of solitude to at least begin to process what had happened in that celestial palace.

As far as I could guess, I had experienced more sheer pleasure than any earthbound mortal has ever known. Nevertheless, as astonishing as it might seem to someone who has never been there, I would eagerly swap an eternity of such highs for the satisfaction of finally getting it right spiritually. There are things of infinitely greater value than thrills, pleasure or ease.

I gasped at having survived heavenly pleasures that would have killed even the most saintly humans, had they trusted in their own attempts to be good enough. I had stolen forbidden pleasures in a manner so virtuous that it was accepted by the Holy One. It worked, because I wanted nothing good I had ever attempted to be credited to me. I was trusting solely in the purity and utter perfection of the Son of Almighty God.

Absolutely anyone could have succeeded in this, but I nearly hadn’t. For far too much of my supposedly Christian life, I would have totally blown it. From childhood, I had realized that the only way to be spiritually transformed is by believing there is nothing I can do to buy God’s favor. By the Holy Judge’s unreachable standards, everyone on planet earth is morally bankrupt. We each owe a debt to divine justice that is so far beyond our means that we could make no progress in paying it off if we tried our utmost not just for all our lives but for all of eternity. What makes this catastrophic is that unless our moral debt is paid in full, we will be forever barred from access to the most wonderful but fearsomely holy Lord. The only solution in the universe is through trusting exclusively in Christ paying the moral debt we could never pay.

That I understood. I had foolishly slipped, however, into supposing this basic spiritual principle applies only to getting started with God. My grave mistake was imagining that once it became possible to relate to a holy God, I could then build up my credit with him through prayer, obedience, sacrifice, and so on, with which I could earn rewards and buy spiritual blessings. I failed to realize that we never move beyond total dependence upon divine mercy. All spiritual gifts are as undeserved and impossible for any human to earn as the gift of forgiveness. They can only be gratefully received by trusting God’s generosity in what Christ did for us on the cross.

At last, I understood why the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, “O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you? . . . After beginning with the Spirit, are you now reverting to human effort?  . . . Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law [human attempts to please God], or because you believe what you heard [trusting the message that Jesus has done for us what we could never do]?”

Even after the momentous discovery that my moral credit card would always come up Insufficient Funds, I could have failed in any situation like the one presented to me by those ‘sparklers.’ I could have skulked away, not being bold enough to have dared to use Jesus’ credit card instead of my own.

Facing the reality of my moral depravity had enabled me to release my vise-like grip (maybe that should be vice-like grip) on my attempts to please God. This freed me to cling to the only true holiness available to humanity – the unassailable purity that comes through faith in the only Sinless Man.

I reeled at the thought of how much I must have missed out on throughout my previous life by foolishly hoping that my devotion might somehow enable me to claw my way out of the slime pit to attain a standard of perfection acceptable to God. And even after finally discovering how impossible that was, I had failed to bet all my faith on the fact that as surely as Christ bore my sins on the cross, I bear his sinlessness. Time after time, instead of stubbornly clinging to this truth, I had let it slip from my grasp. This time, I mused with satisfaction, even though I had wavered, I had hung on long enough to enjoy some of the benefits of trusting solely in the divine acceptance that comes through faith in Jesus.

A warmth flooded my heart as I pondered the endless array of miracles Christ had opened for me when, in his extravagant love, he sacrificed his all, to join his destiny with mine. He had spiritually fused himself to me on a deeper level than a man and wife could ever be one entity.

I marveled that the crucified Innocent had treated my moral imperfections as his own – and suffered the unspeakable consequences – so that I could treat his moral perfection as my own – and revel in the unspeakable consequences. He had let himself be cursed by my sins, so that I could be blessed by his sinlessness. Unlike me, he completed his part perfectly.

As I savored the victory, I somehow knew I had found the key that unlocked the vault to every treasure – to every achievement of eternal worth, every adventure worth embarking on, everything capable of giving a person true dignity and honor. It unlocked the incomparable joy of true love and fulfillment and wisdom and such priceless things as purity and goodness, whose worth no one can even conceive, until granted the undeserved privilege of basking in them.

Perhaps I should pause here. I might as well admit it: I’m a chronic worrier. When I’m not recycling old worries, my mind is on the prowl for new ones – preferably something to beat myself up over.

Right now, as I recount my experiences, I worry about disappointing you. You were hoping for an entertaining and exciting book. Will I spoil it by revealing what was churning in my head during these times?

To explain my dilemma, let’s start by stating that shaving with a chainsaw is better than becoming a Bible freak. That’s someone who reads the Bible without living the Bible, or tries to live the Bible without prayerfully studying it.

Becoming a spiritual monstrosity is an ever-present danger and most people who become one do not even realize it. The way to halve the risk is to become a Bible nerd – someone who lives and breathes the Bible. That’s my goal, and I make no apology for it. To settle for a rudimentary Bible knowledge is as shameful and irresponsible as a sixty-year-old doctor who has done nothing to keep abreast with medical advances since his days in med school.

Even when the most staggering things are happening, my mind might go on a Bible hunt or have a Bible debate with itself. Should such times be your cue to furiously turn pages searching for a better part of the book? Writers might bloat with pride when told they have produced a page-turner. That would shrivel pretty quickly, however, upon learning that this type of page turning is meant.

For you to make an informed decision as to what to do when I lapse into such a mode, it might help to know how my brain works.

Language is basic to how we think. We could barely think without it. Other aspects of our education and experiences continually influence our thinking process. For me, Bible knowledge is nearly that basic. As a jigsaw piece makes little sense until we see how it fits into the puzzle, little in life makes sense to me until I discover how it fits into biblical revelation.

In a vain search for popularity, I could remove from this book my attempts to make sense of things by seeing how they gel with the Word of God. To delete these parts, however, would be to rob you. It would be like removing gold from jewelry and replacing it with plastic.

A truth seeker without a Bible is as pitiable as an astronomer deprived of everything but his naked eye.

You might not realize just how little earth’s greatest scientists could achieve without devoting enormous time to accumulating vast amounts of knowledge from other people. To advance human understanding, even the most innovative scientists must draw upon the discoveries of innumerable predecessors. They must fastidiously study existing knowledge – even beginning with such ancient inventions as language and writing. Likewise, spiritual achievers must extract treasures from humanity’s existing deposits of spiritual truth in order to build anything of heavenly value. In this case, existing knowledge originated not from humans but from God himself and he has chosen to deposit it between Bible covers. No matter how much spiritual potential a person might have, it will be squandered unless he or she devours the Bible, hungrily drawing upon its vast reserves of truth.

I’m a Bible junkie. I’m enthralled by life-giving truth. If you do not understand my obsession, you have my heartfelt sympathy and I pray you will quickly make life’s greatest discovery. More than my infatuation with eternal truth, however, I’m head-over-heels in love with the Source of all truth, the Bible’s author. Who could be so in love, without longing to hang on to his every word?

If you insist, you can always defraud yourself by skipping my Bible-based deliberations to what you think are the good bits. That would be like a child ignoring a priceless gift in order to play with the packaging. Nevertheless, it remains an option.

With that out of the way, I’ll return to my musings about having somehow lost practical awareness of the most basic tenant of the Christian faith. Like every Christian, I had commenced my spiritual life by believing that each of us is too depraved to ever earn God’s forgiveness and approval. If ever challenged, I would rigorously defend the fundamental belief that no one can be saved except by God’s grace through faith in Christ. I remained so familiar with this doctrine and my departure from actually believing it was so imperceptibly gradual that I never realized how appallingly far I had slumped from it.

I was familiar with Proverbs saying such things as, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but in the end it leads to death” and “There are . . . those who are pure in their own eyes and yet are not washed from their filth”. I had no idea it applied to my current spiritual life. I considered myself so doctrinally pure and devoted to Christ. I was sure I was going the right way but it was leading me away from the Savior.

For fear of ever again letting these truths slip from my life, I rehearsed them in my mind, praying that they stick indelibly. No matter how much we bask in God’s forgiveness and live ‘exemplary lives,’ our acceptance by God always remains totally undeserved. No matter how much we sacrificially devote our lives to serving God and living more righteously than anyone else, we remain spiritually bankrupt and as dependent upon the grace of God through Christ as the most deluded heretic or morally depraved no-hoper ever to live. The extent to which we think ourselves better than someone else is the extent to which we have fallen into deception and damming heresy.

Too often I had foolishly surrendered to the dangerous illusion that Jesus was a million miles away from me. Now he seemed not just close, but part of me, and I was part of him. I realized that this had been the case even when he (or I) had seemed so distant.

Now that my mind had settled enough to face whatever challenges were about to assault me, I cracked open my eyes. I was back on earth again. I recognized it immediately. Back to the grime. Back to the murky atmosphere. I shuddered. Earth seems so . . . contaminated. Without even considering such wonders as the ‘sparklers’, merely the difference in the physical atmosphere and light was enough to make returning to earth leave me feeling like a cross between a multi-millionaire suddenly made bankrupt and a love-crazed romantic reeling at losing the one who means everything to her.

Until leaving it for the first time, I had never viewed my birth planet as the fall-out zone of a spiritual catastrophe. I had mourned the ravages of modern civilization upon the raw beauty and delicate balance of nature but something more tragic and fundamental was at play than I had ever realized. My mind flashed through memories of earth – flowers, sunsets, mountains. Despite innumerable traces of beauty and harmony and much to marvel at and delight in, even the most unspoiled parts still have the feel of a vandalized masterpiece. It is as if some sort of spiritual nuclear chain reaction has ripped through the entire planet, corrupting, degrading and mutating everything. It struck me with new force that sin pervades everything – even nature – on earth. Everything reeks of it.

I finally opened my eyes. I found myself staring mindlessly at my arm. Eventually, it registered that I had lost my ‘suntan.’ I was a little disappointed. I had rather liked it, to be honest. I was happier, however, to discover that I had my watch and usual clothes back. I lazily felt for my wallet and noted that I had it. I was momentarily relieved until the thought came, What use is that in a foreign place?

Then my heart leapt. What if I’ve arrived somewhere where I can use it? I excitedly looked around, only to feel myself slump more than ever. Wherever I was, it was not earth. The vegetation and what I presumed to be giant fungi were undeniably alien. Not only was the sky brown, there were two moons in it. One of them looked about one and a half times the size of earth’s moon and the other was significantly smaller. Having no idea how distant they were, it was pointless trying to speculate about their real size. They seemed to contribute to the light – everything had three vague shadows – but the result was better called gloom than light.

In an alien environment I could only resort to a wild guess, but to me the place seemed degraded. Parts seemed overgrown and yet there were also bare patches. Some bushes seemed stripped of leaves. Some trees looked dead.

Plain-colored blurs, quickly vanishing along the ground, and screeches that might have been from birds, indicated that animal life existed, but everything seemed terrified of me. Does this mean there are predators here? My heart thudded. Could I be on their menu?

There was a creepy feel to the place. The contrast made me appreciate even more the forest I had earlier visited. An insect bit me. I instinctively slapped it. It had drawn blood and I had killed it. I felt no remorse, only revulsion at the blood-sucking bug. Other hideous, insect-like creatures began annoying me.

I felt cold. I stood and I tried to walk in an attempt to warm up, but moving was difficult. Some of the plants had thorns. Could some prickles not only rip my skin but be poisonous? Maybe I was being paranoid again, but this was certainly no paradise.

I thought I heard voices. Having no better plan, I headed toward the sound. I had only taken a few steps when I fell. Wondering what had tripped me, I looked down and was shocked to see a vine twisting around my leg. Never have I seen vegetation move like that. Suddenly, small, leech-like creatures emerged from the base of the plant, about ten feet from my leg. They began swarming toward me like ants on the attack. Is this some deadly symbiotic relationship? Does the plant catch and the swarm kill? Does the swarm get the blood and the plant get the carcass as fertilizer? I wasn’t keen to find out.

To my alarm, however, my leg refused to budge. Thankfully, the vine had already extended as far as it could, so it could not twist higher up my body. I tried to unwrap the vine, but it was digging so deeply into my flesh that I could not get a grip on it. Conscious of the slow but relentless march of the swarm, I frantically looked around for a suitable rock. Finding one, I began pounding that murderous vine, hoping to hack through it at a point just below my leg. To my dismay, all I seemed to be doing was hammering that part of the stem deeper into the ground. I desperately needed an anvil. There were plenty of bones – I didn’t care to wonder why there were so many – but none were hard enough. A quick glance at the slowly approaching swarm increased my alarm. Belatedly, I spied a rock that might be just within reach, but the swarm was almost up to it. I had to risk it. I stretched full length and still could not reach it.

Not only was the elusive rock dangerously close to the swarm, I was about to discover I had foolishly overlooked the implications of it also being closer to the base of the plant. A movement caught my eye. Another branch of the vine was creeping toward me! I guessed it to be about six seconds away from reaching my neck, but my estimate was based on the hope that it did not have the ability to creep within striking range and then pounce.

I quickly grabbed an old bone to extend my reach. I still couldn’t reach the rock. I found a longer bone and at last managed to drag the rock toward me, just before the swarm reached it. Their progress was slow but relentless.

Rock in hand, I quickly slithered as far away from the swarm and that creeping branch as my trapped leg would allow. I was now at a different angle to where the swarm had been heading. A chill swept me as I watched them immediately change direction so that once again they were heading straight for me.

What are they honing in on? Body heat? Smell? How can I confuse them? I had ideas, but every one required materials I did not have. I was as stripped of physical resources as a wild animal – except for my clothes. Hey! Clothes . . . smell! There is something I can do! I dived into my pocket, grabbed my handkerchief and quickly rubbed it on both my armpits. Then, in panic-driven stupidity I threw it toward the swarm. Not surprisingly, it was too light to go the distance, and even if it had worked it would only draw them closer to me. To my relief, the throw was so pathetic that the hanky was still within easy reach. I retrieved it, tied it to a bone and deliberately stopped for a precious second to consider the best place to lob it. My throw was astray, but near enough. My smelly hanky seemed to distract a few of the swarm, but most continued their march toward me.

I sighed, then remembered that I now had a second rock. Placing the flatter rock under the vine stem, I furiously pounded on it with the other rock. This was far more effective, but progress was still agonizingly slow. Wow! Is this stem tough! I guess it has to be if it is going to trap animals that would otherwise bite through it. In fact, what stops them from biting through? Is it poisonous? I tried not to get any of its sap on me.

The swarm’s march was merciless. It might have been slow by most standards, but the distance it had to cover was terrifyingly short and, most disturbing of all, it was a speeding, unstoppable freight train, relative to my actions. As I pounded with even greater desperation I grew surprisingly short of breath. I put that down to sheer terror. My arms were tiring but the thought of what that swarm might do to me spurred me to pound and hack and scrape even more feverishly. I was trying to focus my efforts on just one point of the stem. Finally, I had pulverized that section until nothing was left but stringy, fibrous material. The swarm was almost on me. I pulled as hard as I could. The fibers refused to snap.

I kept pounding. Then the rock broke. Oh, no! I looked with fear at the swarm. It was now just seconds from me. I threw bones at the swarm, but this tactic only seemed to enrage them. I looked back at the shattered rock. Wait! Maybe the break has created a sharp edge! It hadn’t. I tried sawing with it anyway. I pulled hard on the vine. It might as well have been steel.

I looked at the pulverized section of the stem below my leg. The part around my leg must surely be lifeless by now. At last the obvious hit me. It was time to change tactics. Starting from the almost severed part of the vine, I began untwisting it from my leg. To my relief it was working but some of the swarm was already on me. The instant I was free I flipped in a backward somersault.

Well that was the plan. My execution of the move might not match an acrobat’s definition of a summersault but anything I lacked in finesse was compensated by a panic-driven need to get out of the swarms’ range in as close to lightning speed as a lumbering oaf could manage. Having completed the first stage of my skedaddle, I scrambled to my feet, ran a few paces then hastily bent down to check for blood-sucking stowaways. Horrified, I swiped a couple off that, thankfully, were only on my clothing, ran three or four more steps, then scoured my person, hunting for more.

I found no more but before I could double check, I crumpled helplessly to the ground; chest heaving, heart pounding.

My understandable mix of surging emotions after that harrowing episode was mingled with a peculiar feeling that I eventually identified as a somewhat perverse hint of ‘I told you so!’ What might have previously been ridiculed as paranoia had been vindicated. Whatever was happening in this surreal series of events was clearly not without its dangers. It was not a particularly comforting thought, however. I recalled, without any amusement, a joke about a hypochondriac’s glee at being able to prepay for his tombstone with the words carved into it, “I told you I was ill!”

Deeply shaken, a part of me had lost all desire to investigate the distant voices I could still vaguely hear. Rationally, however, I knew that in such a dangerous environment, I needed help. If there were intelligent life here, they would know better than me how to survive. Even if I just stayed out of sight but close to them, I would probably be safer.

The unpleasant (I was beginning to think ‘gruesome’ was a more appropriate word environment) had lowered my confidence that I would find innocence anywhere in this world. So when my breathing had stabilized somewhat, I put the next stage of my plan into action. (The truth is that such terminology helped me feel more in control than I actually was.) I considered it wise to sneak up to whatever was making those sounds, and size them up before deciding my next move.

Progress was slow. While eying with suspicion every plant as a potential death trap, I found myself flaying at flying, insect-like critters that were taking an unwelcome interest in my blood, while at the same time feeling the need to proceed as noiselessly as possible. When I had crept close enough, I peered through things I were not even sure were leaves and spied the source of the sounds. To my immense relief, they were angels. I didn’t recognize the few that I could see clearly but that was not surprising. There had been myriads of angels in the endless palace and these here were as beautiful as any I’ve ever seen. It was safe to show myself. I stood up.

“We don’t want them getting any crazy ideas about the Messiah being God. I’ll tolerate a few thinking he’s a great teacher – maybe even a prophet – but nothing more. You got that?”

Eh? Did I hear right? I panicked. What’s going on? I quickly ducked behind the strange vegetation again. Have I been wrong about Jesus? They are angels, aren’t they? I sneaked another look. They were angels all right. A scrap from the Apostle Paul’s writings washed up on the shore of my consciousness – something about if even an angel preaches a different gospel, let him be accursed.

My mind was thrashing in dazed bewilderment.

The beautiful angel continued. “As usual, we want as many lies out there as we can get. That’s the beauty of lying – you can have a million lies for every boring truth. What endless scope for ingenious creativity! Aren’t love and truth sickeningly dull! Where’s the challenge and excitement in such dreary predictability?”

“Your Selfishness, Sir, wouldn’t it be better to have one really good lie that all of us reinforce?” asked one of the listeners, timidly.

Your Selfishness? Did I hear correctly? The tone of voice made it sound almost like a term of honor. Was it some type of translation glitch?

“No, it wouldn’t, you insubordinate heap of trash!” bellowed the first angel. “Do you want another beating?”

The magnificent being who had asked the question cowered. I had never seen an angel look like that. In fact, as I looked from face to face, they had the unmistakable fearsome appearance of angels but even the bully somehow seemed to lack an element of nobility and confidence I had come to expect in angelic facial expressions and body language.

“While these suckers are skirting around some lies, priding themselves in avoiding them, they’ll fall for another lie and never know it. Let them see through some lies and they’ll think they’re smart enough to see through all lies without reliance upon their God. Works every time!”

“Please, your Exalted Wickedness . . .” said one, feebly.

“Well, almost every time!” snapped the first angel, showing obvious annoyance.

“Please, Sir . . .” he repeated.

“What is it, you pathetic blob!”

“O Glorious Savage, these people aren’t like pagans – they know their Scriptures.”

“Ha! Why do you think I keep getting you to study those despicable writings? You haven’t been slacking off, have you? Because if you have . . .”

“Oh, no, sir! I’ve studied hard.”

“Well, why do you think I’ve been hounding you about this? Know your enemy, vacuum head, know your enemy. Know their Scriptures better than they do. Confuse them. Keep whispering wrong interpretations into their minds – interpretations that will inflate their egos, making them think they’re ever so clever, or interpretations that appeal to their lust or greed or laziness or whatever.”

“Excuse me, Most Evil Genius,” said another, “but some of them sincerely pray to their God for understanding of the Scriptures.”

“Okay, we’ve got a problem there, but they are only a tiny minority. We’ll have to keep telling them how good they are at understanding deep scriptural truths.”

“Please, sir . . .”

“What, now?” he snapped.

“Won’t that just encourage them?”

“Oh, why do I waste my time with you! No, bug brain, it won’t encourage them! It will fill them with self-confidence. Before long they’ll think they can slacken off in seeking their God for understanding of his writings.”

“Brilliant, sir, just brilliant!”

“Of course it’s brilliant! That’s why I’m me and you’re you!”

I’d seen enough. If these nonhumans were quaking before the slightly bigger one, he would grind me to dust. But could I retreat without snapping a twig or doing something to give myself away?

The head honcho continued: “Exploit all their weaknesses. Take, for example, their prejudices. Play on the fact that their Messiah was brought up in a despised village. Hush up the fact that he was actually born elsewhere – in the prophesied location. Exploit the leaders’ fear of a popular uprising and of the occupying army’s response. Patriotism’s a wonderful thing! Keep whispering in their ears that he might instigate violence. Make the leaders jealous of his popularity. Keep praising their traditions, whenever these traditions deviate from the spirit of God’s law. Take full advantage of every way in which their Messiah’s behavior differs from these traditions. Keep them so focused on nitpicking the letter of the law that they never realize they have drifted from real love.”

“O Masterful Tyrant . . . ,” began an angel. He might have been slightly smaller than his instructor, but he was still massively built, perhaps eight-foot tall, with spectacular looks. “Their weaknesses that we should exploit are hate, prejudice, fear, greed, jealousy, selfishness, prayerlessness, trusting themselves rather than their God, and so on, right?”

“Yes, slug slime! Haven’t you got that into your head yet?”

It was pathetic to see this magnificent being cringing as he tried to complete his question. “Then, please Most Excellent Oppressor, if these are their weaknesses, how come all of us live like that?”

I recently shared this incident with some friends. They burst into laughter. I have managed to forgive them now. In fact, having wrestled with my friends’ response, I have come to envy them. The big difference between them and me is that I was there. This massive being was about to be tortured. Even now, the haunting memory of the terror on his face sends shudders scurrying through me, ruining all chance of me scrounging any amusement out of this incident. The memory remains like a horror movie in which a corpse is dumped beneath murky waters. No matter how much I want it to stay hidden, it inevitably ends up floating to the surface when least expected, chilling me once again.

The bully’s face distorted with rage so terrifying as to make a snarling wolf look like a church mouse.

“No, no! Please, your highness, sir, I am just trying to learn.”

The distraction seemed the ideal time for me to get away, but I think I was running more in terror than out of careful planning, especially as the smaller humanoid’s blood-curdling cries began. Yes, I still have nightmares about those tormented screeches.

I kept running, crashing through undergrowth. I looked back one last time to ensure I was not being followed. It was then that I must have smashed into the massive angel. Don’t argue with me over whether otherworldly spiritual beings are physical. Maybe I whammed into his forcefield or something. All I know is that hitting a brick wall could not have been more painful. In an instant, I was on the ground, groveling at the feet of a nine-foot hulk, whose face was clouded with hate. His ghoulish presence was so overpowering that I longed to shrink, transmute into a cockroach and find a rock to slither under in shame-faced defeat.

What a way to discover a gaping hole in my theory that I’m invisible to angels! But it definitely seemed as if I were invisible to the other angels. My mind whirled in confusion.

“Well, well! What have we here?” he snarled. “It’s been ages since I had my very own prisoner.”

I was still panting uncontrollably from my run. There’s never an iron lung around when you need one, came the thought. Despite the distance and my continual puffing, I could still hear the other angel’s whimpers. If they do that to their own . . . If such a powerful being is reduced to such . . . I couldn’t bear to think of the implications.

I was a mouse staring at a tiger as I strained my neck to look at this ferocious giant.

I snapped shut my eyes. God, HELP! Get me out of here! I opened my eyes to verify that I was now home or in some paradise. Nothing had happened! Again I shut my eyes. NOW! I peeked a look. I’d settle for any place other than at the feet of that ogre. I’m still here! I cried out to God. NOW, P-L-E-A-S-E! Still nothing. God, you got me into this, GET ME OUT!

What had happened to God?


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