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In his excellent work, Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard discusses the transformation happens in our lives as we engage three things: vision, intention, and means. We have a vision for the beauty and attractiveness of living with God, we make it our intention to live that way, and then we embrace the means for actually living that way.
It is a tragic that, all too often, we skip right ahead to means. The standard idea that prevails goes like this: “just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” However, when we look simply at the behaviors without an accompanying vision and intention, we are often left with a lifeless response that is unable to move through the ups and downs of life.
Simply trying to change behavior never works over the long term. An old friend of mine used to always say, “we do what makes sense to us.” Clearly, what makes sense to us is that for which we have a vision. If I have embraced a vision for something, it makes sense to me … not only cognitively but more importantly at the heart level. Our behavior is always the result of a belief that we have embraced.
The tragedy of simply focusing on behavior is that it can affect the way we interact with the text of Scripture. Viewing the Bible as a guidebook or manual is a common idea that belies a focus on behavior and action. In 2 Timothy 3:17, we are challenged that the Scriptures … “equip for every good work.” But how exactly does the Bible do that? Is transformation simply an issue of changing behaviors or changing vision? If Willard is correct and I believe He is, then perhaps we might best view the Bible as other than a behavioral guidebook or manual for living.
While the Bible as behavioral guidebook has been a dominating view for many years, I want to suggest several other metaphors which might be more helpful and accurate in our approach to the sacred text. (*)
First, we need to see the Bible as vision … a vision for what it is like to live in a relationship with God. The intention is to inspire and motivate us past what we would perhaps believe is possible. For example, the Sermon on the Mount is a vision that Jesus sets forth for what it looks like to live as a part of the kingdom of God. Ideas like “turning the other cheek” and “going the extra mile” and “not worrying” are vision. They challenge us to desire such a beautiful life. First and foremost, the idea isn’t to try to do these things but to want to live this way. Only when we begin with vision can we reliably be led to intention and then means.
When we begin to think about the Bible as vision, we see that the Bible oozes vision. Consider the Psalms. Over and over, lofty and yet real vision is presented through the beautiful use of metaphor and poetry. … consider the following:
Psalm 23:1, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Psalm 42:1, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.”
Psalm 63:3, “your steadfast love is better than life.”
These are fundamentally texts which draw our hearts into envisioning what our lives could be like in relationship with God. There are not primarily texts meant to describe God, although they do that, but texts designed to inspire vision … to lead us to desire deep, crazy, glorious things.
Challenge: take some time in the coming days (or, even a few minutes right now) to read through a psalm and interact with it as vision. What deep desires does the psalm draw out of you?
In coming blog posts, we’ll look at: The Bible as Mirror, The Bible as Guardrail, and The Bible as Love Letter.
*Please note that the suggested metaphors are not intended to take away from the need for accurate, well-informed study of the sacred text as literature: narrative, poetry, prophecy, epistle, etc. Instead, the suggested metaphors are intended to speak to the heart level of how we interact with the text, both in terms of the framework we bring to interpretation and the ways in which we apply the truth we come to understand.
Life of Pi is a great film, worthy of all the recent award nominations. The visual elements and the story itself are captivating. However, what sets the movie apart is the message that we can choose the “truth” we want to believe about reality. The story is an incredibly creative display of that philosophical perspective and also a challenge, perhaps on a personal level. Through the use of great story, the audience is brought to a place of making a choice about how we interact with reality. In some ways, the film exposes the truth of how postmodern humanity defines reality as much as it touts that philosophical perspective.
<<<Spoiler alert … if you haven’t seen it and want to be surprised with the narrative development of the film, don’t read any further>>>
The movie tells a fantastic tale of survival in which a teenage boy, Pi, survives on a raft with a tiger for months and months after a shipwreck. The raft initially has several animals that all end up killing each other, leaving just Pi and the tiger. The story includes many fantastical elements that are just too much to actually believe such as an island that is “alive” and a survival guide that describes how to tame a tiger.
The story telling device features a writer interviewing Pi as an adult years after his survival. Toward the end of the story, Pi describes that after his rescue he was interviewed by the insurance company which had insured the sunken ship. He tells his incredible tale of survival and they refuse to believe him. They press him for the “truth.” Finally, he tells them a much more gruesome tale where the animals who were killed were actually people from the ship. The bloody story was simply horrible and savage and depressing as opposed to the terrific, heroic tale that is the narrative of the film. Pi relates that the insurance company decided to record his first story after hearing the bloody, murderous tale.
Then, the writer asks the adult Pi which story is actually true. Pi replies, “which story do you prefer?” And, with that simple question, he exposes something deep within all of us. We are bent toward choosing stories (definitions about life) that we prefer. The ancient sage, Solomon, put it this way, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)
The philosophical challenge is simple: is truth simply a function of what we prefer? For example, Muslims prefer a god named Allah and the Hindus see god existing as millions of gods and Christians prefer Jesus. Is that really how truth works? Or, is that how we prefer truth to work? In no other realm of human knowledge is preference allowed to dictate what is true. Perhaps, no other realm of human knowledge is as consequential or therefore as personally challenging as what we believe philosophically about the nature of life and spirituality. Perhaps, this is why we play by different rules.
The personal challenge is crucial: do I believe what I prefer to believe or seek truth no matter the perceived consequence?
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” My perception and my preference may not be in line with reality. So, if I simply go with my preference and perception, I could be moving toward death. And, death, as defined by the ancient sage in this verse, is separation … separation from the God who is reality, who is life. However, if I choose to trust Him despite my perception or preference, I find life and peace and joy. It may not seem right at first glance (it might seem to conflict with life and peace and joy) but truth will always lead me there.
We generally know the truth but often don’t prefer it, or we don’t know but want to settle with something so we’re not left in doubt. If we know the truth, we do well to trust and hold on tight. If we don’t know, we do well to let doubts and uncertainty keep us on the humble quest. Worse than the pain or discomfort of truth and doubts is the “death” that comes from simply settling for preference.
Thanks, Pi, for the beautiful story and the reminder that truth is not always what I might prefer but its always what I need.
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice – and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.
*a poem by Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887-1916)
O Father, that I might see you in all things and by all things be led back to my heart where you dwell.
Pray. Seek God in the midst of it all.
There are lots of things we could say about God and His character … lots of things that would sound platitudinous at best or demeaning at worst. In the midst of doubt and fear and hurt and confusion, the reality that God exists and that we can seek Him is sufficient … trusting that He is near and can comfort. We don’t have to know all the answers and have everything tied up in nice, neat platitudes.
“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) Sometimes the comfort (the “reward” of seeking in faith) comes through tears … sometimes through expressions of doubt … sometimes through the confusion of anger — but it always comes by seeking Him as we simply trust that He is there. Be sad, be angry, be confused, be doubtful … and let it drive you to His arms which are big enough and strong to embrace whatever we bring.
As I ponder all the discussions about fiscal cliffs and the results of elections, it seems clear that many have their hope and trust in shaky things. From the beginning of God’s communication to His creation, He has challenged us over and over again not to put our trust in things that don’t last … like power and governments and money. These things are often called “idols” (i.e., false gods) but it seems that we only recognize them as “idols” when they don’t seem to come through for us. As long as they “deliver the goods”, we can be quite happy gaining our security, strength, and significance from them. God graciously challenges us to reconsider, not as some “law dictating deity” but as a God who is Father and cares that we relate to Him as the only one can deliver the goods. However, at times, He delivers them in packages different than we’d expect or even realize we want.
The reality is that we were never designed to find life in money or governments (whether a donkey or an elephant) or power or success. In Jeremiah 2, God likens this to digging a well that doesn’t hold water. It might for a moment but it keeps leaving us empty. In Psalm 20, the king writes that “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” The chariot and the horse were symbols of military strength and wealth. God told that kings of Israel not to accumulate horses. Why? Because, there would be the temptation to trust in those horse to protect them rather than the one, true God who alone is sovereign and good and holy and pure and loving. Consider the contrast, no mutual fund or retirement account has ever loved you. No amount of money has your best interests in mind. In subtle ways, we can make idols of anything.
The point is not that having retirement accounts is wrong but that my “way of life” is not threatened by its existence or lack. My wife of life is not threatened by which party wins the presidency and my way of life is not bolstered by who leads any government. My way of life (i.e., the way I approach and live life) is in the context of a loving, personal relationship with the God of the universe who leads me and satisfies me and strengthens me (Isaiah 58:11). There is nothing in this universe that can separate me from that and if I am relying upon money or a government to bolster my way of life, then perhaps those things have subtly taken the place of God and become idols. The worst economic and political environment from one perspective might be the best in terms of deepening and growing my relationship with God. The “best” environment might actually keep me from the one, true God.
Consider Romans 8:31-39 … “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In light of this, if my goal in life is to live in the love of God, I have no worries.
Thomas Merton, in writing about the vocation of a monk, said: “The monk is not defined by his task, his usefulness. In a certain sense, he is supposed to be ‘useless’ because his mission is not to do this or that but to be a man of God.”
Tom Ashbrook, in his book Mansions of the Heart, speaks to the idea that we all have an “inner monk” that needs to be nourished. What he meant is that all of us, having been created in the image of God, have a longing for God – a longing to just be in His presence and know Him with all our being. In a world that values doing over being and accomplishments over character, it is difficult to nurture our inner monk. It is not easy to “be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
Last spring, I wrote the following as an expression of my desire in this …
To become useless, dare I be?
A new way to live
Desiring to be free
Letting go of want
To simply do I release
Entering into being
Entering into peace