The Rest of the Story–Part 1
“Having recognized our lost condition and found a Savior,” writes Norman, “we now think that, as Christians, we can set to work and live on a new level….” In this article, the first of a 3-part series, Norman addresses the cause of our failure, as Christians, to meet God’s standards of right living and unfolds the next step in our understanding of that “new level” available to us by faith.
What we call Christianity… is not belief in a doctrine, not membership in a church, not allegiance to a Bible or a Jesus of history, but a new love; for again we say, we live where we love, and this new love is for the first time in my human history the love of someone more than myself: and this is and means a new quality of life of which the potential and implications are way out of sight beyond space and time, just as an Amazon river starts by a trickle at its source, or a prairie fire begins with a spark.
However, this has not completed the exposure to us of our mistaken concepts of life, as though it is we living it. We are so used to this illusory outlook that, though we have now recognized and admitted that we did not live our lives on God’s standards, and in our lost condition needed and found a Savior, we now think that, as Christians, we can set to work and live on a new level. We will seek to keep the commandments, to love God and others, to maintain communion with Him by prayer and Bible reading, to conquer the habits that defeat us, our hates and fears and lusts and jealousies, to have God at the center of our domestic, business and social life, to attract others to our newfound faith.
Instead, what happens? We begin to find this new life wearisome. We have not what it takes to live it, neither sufficient love for God and our neighbor, nor sustained interest in prayer or the Bible, nor victory over our weaknesses.
We even lose the consciousness of God’s presence. We cannot handle our depressions, our failures, our relationship problems, the strains and stresses of modern life, the difficulties of even attempting to be honest and pure and not self-seeking in the jungle warfare of modern industrial, political, and even social and domestic life. To say that we approach a conformity to the absolute demands of loving God with all our heart and mind and our neighbor as ourselves, is ridiculous, and frankly we often do not want to. Maybe we had better give up. Maybe life was easier and more enjoyable without trying to be a Christian in a serious sense. We seem nearer to a breakdown and the need of psychiatric help than to the peace and rest and adequacy we thought the Christian life had for us.
Good; all these are excellent signs. In our former unredeemed life, we had to be so disturbed that we came to a final crack-up and admitted our failure before God, a total failure. Despair is the best word, for despair means that we are finished and there is nothing more we can do about it. We have to come there, having given up completely, before we can have eyes to see that when we could not climb up to Him, He had climbed down to us; what we could not do for ourselves, He had done for us.
The Second Despair
Now, again we have to come to a second despair. Before, our recognition was that we had not done what we should have done in keeping God’s law. This time, as redeemed Christians, we come to the discovery that we cannot do what we should do. Before, we learned our guilt. This time, we learn our helplessness. Before we did not, now we cannot.
The apostle Paul has a profound and subtle explanation of this stage in our experience. He has already shown how the law (God is love) should have been naturally operative in us, so that we are love; but owing to our fall into self-centredness, that same law then confronted us with its demands which self-love can- not fulfill, and thus at last led us to honest admission of our lawlessness.
He goes on to show, mainly in his Romans and Galatians letters, that because we are still not yet free from an innate self-reliance, from the idea that somehow as new men in Christ we can do what we didn’t do before, once again the law confronts us with its “You ought,” “You must”; and in our illusory self-confidence we jump at the bait. “All right, we will,” we say. “We’ll do the best we can.” And down we fall on our faces. We don’t fulfill it, and usually we don’t even want to fulfill it. We prefer to please ourselves.
Often the preachers from the pulpits are themselves to blame in their constant exhortations to us to get up and get doing what we can’t, and don’t honestly want to—for the simple reason that independent self, self-relying self, can only by its very nature be self- pleasing self. So we come to an impasse. The law, according to Paul, is now completing its job on us. It forces us to face, first our guilt, but now our helplessness.
The Bible is full of illustrations of sincere men, earnestly dedicated lives, who went through the period of their disillusionment, when they had to discover that they could not be or do what they wanted to do. Outstanding are the disciples of Jesus, who were completely sincere in saying they would die for Him, but they ran when the heat was on, Peter to the point of denying Him with curses; and that was just where they learned this second and final lesson—their inability.
I learned it, to give a word of personal experience, when I was as dedicated as I knew how to be. I had responded to the call of God to take Christ to the Congo. That cost me nothing, because I could conceive of no higher honor than to introduce Africans to Him to whom I had had a personal introduction through an Englishman. When out there, my aim was single and concentration total on my calling. But I carried with me this illusory concept we are all born with—that I was a servant of Christ and wanted to be the best I could be; and yet I was terribly conscious that I was not what I should be.
Particularly, I had not the kind of love which would identify me with those to whom I had gone, or the faith that the things would happen I had come out to see, or the power to see them happen: and when I am dissatisfied with my standards of ministry, I take it out on my wife by irritability, and my fellow-workers by criticism which must not admit that they have what I have not.
So, though active without, tramping the villages to speak of Jesus, up in the early morning for a couple of hours with God and the Scriptures, within I was unhappy. I began to think that I had been happier before I gave my life to Christ than after. I was bound by self-consciousness, inner strain, disturbed relationships.
I was passing through what I since learned is a stage we all have to pass through when we are miserable Christians and, as I did, think we were happier in the old life than in the new! Sometimes it has been called “the dark night of the soul,” “the wilderness experience,” “the dry and thirsty land where no water is,” with much more self-consciousness than God-consciousness, more self-concern than concern for the needs of those for whom I had come to Congo.
But, unknown to me, my real trouble lay in another direction. I had the illusory idea that I needed to become something better than I was: I must be a better representative of Jesus Christ, and so forth. I was looking for personal improvement and some further spiritual equipment which would set me on my feet. God and the Spirit were then to be my helpers.
I sought God and searched the Scriptures, as any earnest Christian would do. Surely there in the Bible the answer was to be found, for it talked of love and faith and power and freedom. But the answer I got was in very different terms. It was a confrontation, not this time with the law saying to me, “You ought,” but with God turning my attention from myself to Himself by saying to me, “I am.” The way it came to me was in that statement I have so often quoted, “God is love.” But the emphasis was on the little word “is.” It struck me that I had been seeking a God who would say to me, “I have and will give to you.” But instead, He was merely saying, “I am,” and not “I have.” It was as if He were saying to me, “You’ve got it wrong. You thought love was something I had and could therefore share with you. But love is not a thing at all. I am love.”
Then I saw that the only self-giving love in the universe is a Person, not a thing. Therefore, it is not something He could share with me, but it is Himself, and He can’t take parts of Himself and give to me. He can only be Himself. It was my first sight of an exclusive God, the One Person in the universe, who gives nothing but is everything, and, therefore, His only giving is to give Himself and just be Himself wherever He does give Himself.
The Paradigm Shift
How then do I have my needs supplied, if God has nothing to give me, but in each instance I find that He is (not has) the power, He is (not has) the life; until finally I read that “Christ is (not has) all, and in all”? That last phrase gave me my key. I saw that my mistake was the idea that He would give me things, and that I would thus become something. Now I saw that we humans do not exist to become something, but to contain Someone. This was a totally different concept and was the end of my great human illusion that I must be this or become that, centering my attention on what I am or ought to be, and equally depressing me with the recognition of my failing to be all this.
Now I saw that I am to cease to look for improvements in myself, or to center my attention around what I feel or don’t feel, whether I am this or have that, why I fail in this or am defeated by that—the whole outlook on life which fixes my attention on myself and my reactions or my adequacies or inadequacies.
The most illuminating illustration I found in the Bible was the several times we are called vessels, because a vessel, a cup, a vase, a can, is strictly limited to one function only. It only exists to be a container. It can be nothing else: and here was this simple though humbling illustration of my relation as a human to God. I only exist to contain Him. A vessel does not become the liquid it holds; they are separate, unmixable entities: so I as a human do not become the power or love or wisdom of God; I merely contain Him who is all these, and everything. How clearly I saw that: we humans are not created to become something, but to contain Someone— but that someone is the living God, and, therefore, the All.
This transferred my attention from worrying about myself as the vessel not being this, or being that. Leave myself alone. I am just the container. In place of this, I had it clearly that I was containing a totally exclusive Person who gives nothing, but is all; and I don’t contain Him in a relationship in which He imparts various gifts and graces to me, but I am just a means by which He can be Himself in a human container. This means that my main function in life changes from activity to receptivity. Activity centers round how I can be this or do that, around my human self. Receptivity is occupied with receiving or recognizing what I contain—the only function of a vessel.
We Just Receive
I saw how all life is in this same relationship to God. Vegetation exists by what it receives—sunlighft and rain. What it receives it utilizes, but it must receive first, then activity is a by-product of receptivity. All science is application, not creation. Scientists discover what is, and then apply it. We humans have lost our way because we are blinded to the fact of being containers of God, and have substituted our self-activity. We have to return to the roots: and it is not even really receptivity, but recognition, for having already received Him, we form the continuous habit of recognizing that we do contain Him. Life at its base becomes a repetition of recognition. What more amazing realization can there be than that we humans contain God?
This is why Jesus stated that rest is the evidence of a life in gear. He said to us His followers, “Take my yoke upon you . . . and you will find rest unto your souls; for my yoke is easy and my burden light.” An obvious contradiction in terms. Life is activity—the yoke is pulling the plow: but how can a plow be easy to pull or a burden light to carry? The answer is the difference between activity from inadequacy which is strain, and activity from adequacy which is rest. If we are pulling the plow of our life’s problems, relying on our own resources, that is strain, for we haven’t got what it takes to meet them. If, in our pressures, we turn inwardly as containers to Him who is the all within, and boldly reckon on Him to handle things, then it is rest in the midst of the activities—the habit of recognition.