Permit me to begin with an old joke with which I began a recent sermon:
There was a man of great faith of lived alone in his house. One day, a great storm came and the rain poured down and the man’s neighborhood began to flood. As he stood on his porch surveying the river that was forming in front of his house, some people came by on a boat. “Get in”, they said, “and we’ll take you to safety.” “No”, the man answered, “I am a man of great faith, and I know that God will save me.” So the boat moved on. The water continued to rise, and the man retreated to the second story of his house. As he looked out the window at the raging water, another boat came by, and the people invited him in so he could be taken to dry ground. “No, thank you,” the man answered. “I am a man of great faith, and I know that God will save me.” So the boat moved on. Eventually, the water rose so high that the man had to retreat to the roof of his house as the water swirled around him. A helicopter came along and hovered over him. A rescue worker was lowered down on a rope, and asked the man to get into a harness, and they would pull him up to safety. “No, thank you,” the man answered. “I am a man of great faith, and I know God will save me.” So the helicopter moved on. The man drowned. Upon arriving in heaven, the man stood before God and said, “Dear God, my whole life I was a man of great faith in you. Why did you not save me?” God said to the man, “Well, I did send you two boats and a helicopter.”
One of the wonderful things I like about this little joke is that it illustrates the need for a shift in our spiritual perspective, and the consequences of failing to make that shift: a forfeiting of the precious gift of life. But, I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.
The shift I am referring to is a shift from a spiritual perspective of God that is interventionist to a perspective that views God as an agent — the most important agent — in our personal transformation.
In the joke, the man who refuses all human offers for help sees himself as someone of great faith, and he defines this as someone who believes that God will save him from the flood. That is fine, as far as it goes. The problem surfaces (pun–sorry) when it becomes clear that his spiritual perspective on God is one in which being saved from the flood apparently relies on some act of divine intervention that results in his deliverance from danger. The message of the joke is clear: because he is locked into this perspective, he ends up forfeiting his life and any further opportunity to exercise his faith in this world for the good of his fellow human beings. He has forfeited something extremely precious.
The heart of the Christian spiritual tradition, which sadly is often lost in many of today’s versions of Christianity, aims at something quite different. Rather than encouraging a perspective that expected God to intervene on behalf of God’s faithful servants, the tradition actually greatly discourages that point of view. The stories of the men and women who abandoned the world over the centuries to dedicate themselves fully to the pursuit of an intimate relationship with God make it very clear that those who undertook such a path in the expectation of experiencing miracles were seen as being in grave spiritual danger, opening themselves to delusion. The Christian spiritual life was instead to be aimed at personal transformation through the grace of God. The expectation that God will perform some miraculous intervention is, fundamentally, tied to the ego, and the Christian spiritual tradition (along with every other spiritual tradition that I know of) sees the ego as the chief human problem. To expect miraculous intervention is to misunderstand what God and the spiritual life are about, and is to inflate one’s own importance with respect to the rest of humanity and creation. Another aspect of the ego that shows up in this kind of thinking is that we often ask for God to “save” us from that which is inextricably a part of human life. All of us will encounter suffering and misfortune at some point and to some degree; all of us will encounter sickness at some point and to some degree; and all of us, no matter what, will eventually die. These are all part of what it is to be human.
The Christian spiritual tradition views our life’s journey as one that is to be transformative, through a synergy or cooperation between us and God’s grace. One result of that transformation is to recognize the presence of God beyond the miraculous. Or, put another way, is to see that all of life is miraculous and filled with God’s presence. Even the sufferings and misfortunes, the illnesses and, yes, even death itself are filled with the presence of God. If the man in the joke had been further along in that process of transformation, he would have jumped into one of those boats or finally taken the helicopter, because he would have recognized that the fact that other human beings came along who could take him to safety was itself a miracle, and a manifestation of God’s presence in the people who offered their help.
Now there are those who will point to seemingly miraculous events in the Bible both to emphasize the possibility of miraculous intervention and perhaps to argue that praying for or even expecting such intervention is not unreasonable. To me, it is clear that I cannot fully account for the more miraculous elements of the biblical stories. I was not there, that which they describe is completely outside my experience, and thus I am in no position to judge them. Perhaps they happened as they are told, though most likely the stories were embellished to some degree. They were certainly told to communicate deep truths, which may or may not depend on the miraculous elements. It is certainly true that the stories are told from particular perspectives which we cannot fully enter into. As someone once said (if I may paraphrase) there is more to this universe, and certainly to God, than is dreamt of in any of our philosophies (or theologies).
What is more interesting to me, rather than the individual miraculous stories of the Bible, is the overall movement evident within the larger themes of the Scriptures. To me, that movement is one of transformation, whether of the people of Israel as they move from slavery to freedom to nomadism to settled existence or the more personal and individual transformation to which Jesus points as he charges his followers to find a new and renewed life through love of God and neighbor. All of the major figures of the Hebrew Scriptures undergo transformations that are at least as impressive as the more spectacular miracle stories: Abraham and Sarah set out into unknown territory to sow the seeds of a new people; Jacob’s journey is one from selfish, jealous younger brother to a wise leader; Moses goes from being a stuttering exile hiding out to leading his people to freedom, just to name a few. And the overriding interest of the prophets and the wisdom writers of the Hebrew Scriptures is the transformation of people, individually and collectively, from unrighteousness to righteousness and from faithlessness to faithfulness. The New Testament is filled with stories of transformation, as broken people are led to greater wholeness and as the disciples move from clueless cowardice to courageous proclamation of the love of God manifested in Jesus.
Over and over again, as people experience healing and wholeness in the presence of Jesus, he says to them that it is their faith that has made them well. Much of the time, this is interpreted as meaning that these people believed the right thing or trusted enough. Perhaps it did. But it may also mean that Jesus engendered in them, through the grace of God that moved through him, a change in perspective, and that shift resulted in a profound transformation — we might even say a miraculous transformation. It is amazing — miraculous — what can happen to people when they begin to see themselves not as fundamentally broken, but as fundamentally whole; not as sinners worthy of punishment, but as saints already loved by God.
So let’s not find ourselves standing around waiting for a lightning zap from God to help us out. Instead, let’s look for the lightning within, God’s spirit already dwelling in us, seeking to change our hearts and our perspectives. As Jesus taught, let those who have ears to hear hear, and those who have eyes to see see.