We live in two worlds.
Two worlds at once.
I wish I’d understood that concept when I was growing up in a religious framework that discouraged questions, a framework that feared and avoided doubt like the plague. Granted, avoiding or denying doubt is no more tragic than settling down in doubt, as many believers seem to be doing. To arrive at doubt as if it is wisdom, as if it is an end, is terrible. It’s hopeless. Yet many of us on both sides of the spectrum find ourselves mired in doubts about the existence, goodness, and sovereignty of God. Or we wonder if we’re measuring up as believers, as artists, as parents. Either way, doubt is not our enemy, and it is not our end. It is a gift. It is an opportunity. We have the challenge, the privilege, of looking beyond the strictures of our small world and stepping into something far greater. For we live in two worlds at once.
It’s II Corinthians 4:18 that illustrates this truth most clearly, most succinctly. It lets us in on a strange secret: we’re not supposed to look at the things we can see. The things we can see are temporal, momentary, fleeting. The things we cannot see, however, those are the real stuff of the universe. For the sake of simplicity, imagine that your left foot is planted in the temporal realm. This is the realm of time, of transition, of change. This is the realm in which we experience lack, in which we have needs. This is the realm of mystery and doubt, of sickness and death. This is the realm of process, the one in which we are “being sanctified.” This is the realm we can see with our waking eyes, and although our experiences in the temporal realm are real and often extremely painful, this is only half of our reality.
Imagine that your right foot is planted in the eternal realm. This is the realm of no time, the realm in which God exists as the “I Am,” the realm of the eternal now. This is the realm in which you are a finished product, holy and complete in Christ. This is the realm of ultimate reality, where everything is fixed, unchanging. This is the realm we cannot see with our waking eyes, but this is the only realm that will last. This is also, by the way, not a future realm. The eternal realities of God are true now, at this moment, not after we die. This is our present reality.
This concept pervades Scripture, though it often does so in subtle ways. The psalmist speaks of walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. This is his “left foot” experience. This is what he is facing in the temporal realm. Amazingly though, he chooses not to be afraid. Why? Because of the eternal truth that God is with him. Another example, this time from the New Testament: “In the world you will have tribulation.” This is an unavoidable part of our temporal experience. But Jesus encourages us to take heart. Why? Because the unchanging truth, the deeper reality, is that He has overcome the world.
Doubt is a gift because it forces us to differentiate between the temporal and the eternal. It forces us to call things by their true names. Take Gideon, for example. In Judges 6, Gideon’s people are being bullied by the Midianites. They’re hiding in caves, and every time they produce a crop of barley or grapes, the Midianites descend like locusts and destroy it. When the story begins, Gideon is threshing wheat in a wine press. He’s hiding. And the Angel of the Lord shows up and calls him by his true name. It’s a curious scene. Picture a man peeking out from a hiding place, trembling. Is this the one you’d choose to lead armies? But the Angel of the Lord is not deceiving himself. He’s not merely optimistic. He sees the temporal situation. But he also sees beyond it to the eternal. He calls Gideon a mighty warrior, a valiant man! There was not a shred of evidence in the seen, material world to support that statement, but the Lord called Gideon by his true name, and things began to change.
In Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, wizards gain power by learning the true, ancient names of things. To know a thing’s name is to understand it, and when someone calls a thing by its true name, his relationship to it is changed. In The Tombs of Atuan, LeGuin goes a step further. Her main character, Ahra, was consecrated in early childhood to become a priestess of “The Nameless Ones,” the most ancient and most terrible gods of their world. Ahra spends her days in darkness, pacing the labyrinthine passages in the Undertomb, the holiest place of her gods. When a wizard violates the sanctity of that tomb by bringing light into the dark places, the priestess traps him. She plans to let him die. She calls him an infidel, and she despises him. Over time, though, Ahra becomes captivated by the wizard’s words. She comes to understand that the gods she serves are real and powerful, but not meant to be worshipped. She begins to see the temple as a prison, begins to long for the world outside. In the climax of the story, as Ahra tries to lead the wizard out of the labyrinth and escape with him, she falters, fearing the earthquake that shakes the walls of the Undertomb, fearing the rival priestess who intends to kill her. The wizard turns to her and says,
“…I hold the roof up over our heads, this moment. I keep the walls from closing in upon us. I keep the ground from opening beneath our feet…If I can hold off the earthquake, do you fear to meet one human soul with me? Trust me, as I have trusted you! Come with me now.”
The priestess had seen nothing but the darkness, the earthquake, the danger. All temporal realm realities. When she sees the enormous power of the man beside her, she gets a glimpse into something larger, something truer. The man whom she had called “infidel” she now calls “savior,” and she escapes at last into a life of light and freedom.
There’s another gift of doubt, an opportunity that’s especially vital in a world where all the best and brightest things are displayed for us in an endless virtual parade. I find it’s very easy to doubt my worth and the importance of my work when, every day, thousands upon thousands of writers are writing better pieces, thousands upon thousands of mothers are loving and training their children with more patience and creativity, thousands upon thousands of believers are taking greater risks, suffering greater hardships, and sharing their stories with greater courage than I am. It’s all too much. If I make comparisons, if I keep my eyes trained on the often-deceptive appearances of the temporal realm, I will be utterly defeated.
It’s silly, isn’t it? As believers, we drone on and on about our faith in the unseen, but we tend to live like materialists, like the things we see are incontrovertible evidence of what is true in the eternal realm. This is yet another place where stories help us to see beyond appearances. What was David to Goliath? From a temporal perspective, David was a flea for Goliath to pinch between his fingers. From an eternal perspective, Goliath was a slip of flash paper, burned up by the glorious light of the God who shone through David. And what about Frodo, or Lucy? They were the smallest of the group, the least likely (according to appearances) to accomplish great things.
We fail to see the utter uselessness of making comparisons. We fail to understand the unspeakable value of each of God’s unique and beloved children. Lewis puts it beautifully, in his preface to The Great Divorce, when he says:
“We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre; rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork you must make a decision. Even on a biological level life is not like a river but like a tree. It does not move toward unity, but away from it and creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good.”
How marvelous! As we grow and mature, we do not become more and more like those people we admire, but less and less, and this is not a sign of failure, but of success. God is pleased to manifest Himself through us in our individuality. He shines through billions of unique smiles, loves through billions of hearts, serves through billions of hands. To compare ourselves to one another is to embrace doubts about the goodness of God and endless doubts about ourselves. If we linger in doubt, we are trapped in the temporal, defined by appearances. But if our doubt raises questions, if it forces us to see ourselves for what we really are, then it allows us to see beyond, into the eternal truth of our great worth.
It all comes back to seeing, doesn’t it? Seeing things as they are, seeing beyond. We’re meant to see with heavenly eyes, eternal realm eyes. We’re meant to see beyond our small stories, to understand them in light of the glory that’s coming. We’re meant to know the end from the beginning, and what’s wonderful about knowing the end is that it bleeds backward into the middle of the story. It gives us hope in the darkest seasons of our journey.
Megan Whalen Turner wrote a series of books called The Queen’s Thief Series. (I’m a fantasy writer, so forgive me if I tend to illustrate points with stories from fantasy novels. I recently heard Heidi Johnston say that fantasy was not an escape from reality, but an escape into reality.) Turner’s books follow the journey of a young boy named Eugenides who rises from a minor (if honored) position as Queen’s Thief to become king of a rival nation. The third book in the series, The King of Attolia, begins in the last place the reader wants it to. Turner disappoints us, frustrates us, by telling the story from the perspective of a man named Costis, a low-level soldier in the Queen’s Guard. We’re forced to feel Costis’s disdain for the king. We’re forced to watch as the king’s attendants make a fool of him, bringing him mismatched clothing, leading him on merry chases through the palace while insisting that these are the shortest, most direct routes. For his own part, Eugenides does nothing to gain his people’s respect. We see him lounging on the throne, dozing through important meetings and ignoring his court. We see him argue with his queen. We feel helpless, betrayed, and entirely unsure about the outcome of the story.
There comes a moment, though, when all the pieces have been set. There’s an assassination attempt, and Eugenides, who is badly wounded, sits on the royal bed, surrounded by a golden coverlet. His pretense falls away, he speaks in a way he’s never spoken before. His attendants begin to understand whom they’re dealing with, and in one stunning blow the noble houses that have threatened the queen’s hold on her country are brought to ruin. Eugenides is revealed. We feel Costis’s shock. He is awestruck, overcome. Eugenides has been in control all along. He’s been confident of every detail, at every second. It’s an overwhelming shift in perspective.
How strange that we, as believers, live as though we’re unsure of the outcomes of our stories. While the temporal bends and shifts and lies to us, the eternal truth remains. Someone is in charge. He’s been in charge all along. The first time I read The King of Attolia, I was on pins and needles. I was anxious, angry, horrified at the seeming trajectory of the story. The second time, whenever I came to a section where things looked grim, whenever I saw Eugenides humiliated, whenever he seemed indifferent, I just smiled to myself. By then I understood. And the glorious ending of the story reached backwards and redeemed the whole experience.
Lewis, from The Great Divorce,
“Ah, the Saved…what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage. What seemed, when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts, memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water.”
I wonder if it is possible, knowing the ending of our story, knowing that we are “more than conquerors,” for us to live with more boldness, more certainty, more joy? On our left hand is lack. On our left hand are salt deserts. But these are the mirages. On our right, in the unseen realm, “whosoever believes in Me shall not hunger, shall not thirst.”
The eternal was meant to do that, I believe, to invade the temporal realm. Lewis brings the two realms into such stark contrast in The Great Divorce. The poor souls (or “ghosts”) who get off the bus are described as “smudgy and imperfectly opaque,” as “man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air.” But they have entered a world where the light is so intense, its golden shafts seem to pierce the ground, a realm where every blade is grass is as “hard as diamonds to (their) insubstantial feet.” Yet the ghosts, instead of taking hold of the eternal, flee back to their shadows. They find they have no taste for the substance and clarity of that world.
Are we any different? It’s faith that takes hold of the eternal, that makes it real in the temporal realm. But we look at the temporal and demand evidence of the eternal. Consider Gideon again. When the Lord calls him by his true name, he asks for proof. “IF the Lord is with me,” he says, in effect, “why do my circumstances look the way they do?” The Lord is gracious to Gideon and goes through a lengthy dew/fleece rigamarole, but before that, when Gideon brings food and sets it before his guest, the Angel of the Lord touches his staff to the meal and consumes it with fire. The eternal eats up the temporal. How could it do otherwise? The eternal is all that lasts.
Later on in this remarkable story, in answer to yet another of Gideon’s doubts, the Lord sends Gideon to the camp of the Midianites to listen in on a conversation. The enemy soldiers believe that Gideon will win the battle, and they say so, and Gideon hears their words and believes them. And the Lord says that the knowledge of the coming victory will “strengthen his hand.” Notice that the Lord didn’t say the knowledge of the truth would strengthen Gideon’s heart. No! It would actually strengthen his physical body. The eternal invades the temporal. This is incarnation. This is how we were meant to live.
Of course, our Enemy delights in using the temporal realm to advantage. He has no power to alter the eternal, so he plays with shadows and appearances, and he’s always coming to us with “ifs”.
He did it with the first Adam (though there the “if” is implied). He comes to the first children of God and asks why anything should be forbidden them IF God loves them, IF God is good, IF God is present. To my knowledge, Adam and Eve had an advantage we can scarcely imagine. Everything in their world was eternal. There were no appearances that deceived. Every last particle of wind and water and soil, everything they saw and knew of God and themselves was bedrock truth. It was unchanging, unshakeable reality. There are no words to describe what they lost, what they gave up. “Fall” falls painfully short. But they dropped the eternal like a hot potato and reached out for Satan’s empty promises, his flimsy imitations, his illusions.
The Last Adam faced a similar temptation from an opposite set of circumstances. He’d been baptized, had seen the Spirit descend and heard the voice of the Father, declaring His love and approval. Then he’d gone straight out into the wilderness. He’d fasted almost to the point of starving. He’d been alone. Very likely, his body was thin, sunburned, filthy. And Satan showed up with another set of “ifs.” As always, Satan set his focus on the temporal realm. Jesus probably didn’t look much like the Son of God on that day. There was no visible, tangible evidence that his needs were met, that God was with him, that he was loved. So Jesus didn’t argue temporal realm odds. He didn’t give the Enemy an inch. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” That’s what he said when he was starving, when Satan’s ghostly bread must have looked like the answer to all his needs. He saw through the fleeting, temporary nature of bread, right through to the rock-solid, diamond-hard truth of the eternal realm. He set his right foot down in ultimate truth and walked victorious out of temptation.
Jesus never denied the pain of the temporal realm. He was hungry. He was weary. He was well acquainted with sorrow and grief. I believe he even understood doubt, understood the enormous challenge of focusing our eyes on the things we cannot see when what we can see are darkness, despair, suffering, and fear. When we struggle, when we wonder, when we doubt, we are not condemned. But to make our home in doubt is to settle down into the temporal realm. It is to be tossed about by the winds of change, waiting for our bank statements or our book reviews or our relationships or our physical appearances or our children’s success to give us hard evidence of the truth of the eternal. Those things pass away. They are always passing away. It is only faith that anchors us in the eternal, in the unalterable now of God.
It’s that scene from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the one where Indiana has to cross the invisible bridge. His eyes tell him that nothing will catch him, but he places his foot out over the void and finds a bridge of stone. The yawning chasm raises serious doubts, but it also allows him to exercise his faith. It’s his faith in the unseen that brings him safely over. And while we wrestle with the reality of the “not yet”, while we wait for the morning, there are is sense (a deeper, truer sense) in which the Daystar has already risen in our hearts, in which the morning has already come. Our left feet may be weary, broken, dragging. But let’s plant our right feet on the soil of the unseen world. Let’s take hold of the eternal so it can invade the now. Let’s raise a shout and charge the darkness. We bring the dawn with us.
Photo courtesy of Donna Murray.