Monday, March 21, 2005

Leaning on a Lamp

When I think back on the dramatic religious experience that changed my life—healing my depression and making me believe not only in God but also in Jesus' messiahship—I think of two messages that I received.

One was the literal message that I heard (which in retrospect recalls Proverbs 2): "Some things are not meant to be known; some things are meant to be understood." That may sound like a strange theophany, but it spoke directly to how I needed to approach faith at the time.

The other message wasn't in words. It came during a period of about five days immediately following the experience, when I had the feeling of being led by the Holy Spirit, as though I were being pulled around by the top of my head. I followed, befuddled but ecstatic, just doing what I felt the Spirit was moving me to do. It was as though I were being taught how to recognize the Spirit at work, so that after it evaporated—and I was sorry when it did—I would know the difference between its inspiration and my own.

During that mystical and intensely exciting time, I tried to ask the Spirit what was going to happen to me. But I was never shown anything more than the next things that I was supposed to do—which in this case were just mundane, everyday things. God's word is, after all, a lamp unto our feet, and a lamp only shows you the next step.

Yet I felt that I received a larger answer—the same one that had come to me in a rush along with the initial experience. It was God's peace: the feeling that everything would be fine. It wasn't a guarantee that I wouldn't have pain, but it made me certain, for the first time in my life, that my suffering had meaning—and that Jesus was with me in it. I likewise had the certainty that as Jesus was with me where I was, so I would eventually be with Him where He is, in Heaven.

Julian of Norwich captured that feeling in her most famous saying: "It is sooth that sin is cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

Most importantly, it's the message that Jesus spoke directly to his disciples at the Last Supper. These are the words that He wants to sear into our minds and hearts, especially at the times when we cannot readily see His hand in our lives:

These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)
The idea that "all shall be well" has an unfortunate association with New Age sentiment, as it seems to imply that good people cannot change the world. Yet I don't think that when Jesus told us to "be of good cheer," He meant that His peace would prevent us from having to take action of our own.

The truth is that, while we are required to actively follow God's will, we can't possibly make everything well on our own strength. When the tribulation comes—as it does because of sin—and there is nothing left that we can do, we still have something left to support us, the same thing that's really supported us all along. It's our God-given faith that Jesus has overcome the world.

Remember that God is able to work good out of evil, so that even tribulation can, in retrospect, become part of His plan. As James wrote, "Count it all joy when ye fall into diverse temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing."

I say, "in retrospect," because in this life, we only see the next step—"through a glass darkly," as Paul wrote. Our values on Earth determine not only where we will end up, but how we will forever perceive ourselves in relation to God. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce:

"But what, you ask of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell; and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself."