The futility of the darkened glass

darklyOne of my favorite thoughts from the Bible is that we “see through a glass darkly” in our human experiences. Now, you can find all sorts of meanings about this depending on which version of theology you embrace, what church you attend, or whose commentary you choose to read, but to me, it identifies the absurdity of trying to control one’s life.

In order to have control, one must know at least the immediate future, so as to avoid tripping along the path from here to there. However, this simple teaching — that we’re unable to see ourselves or our lives as life sees us — reveals the vanity of our efforts. What we want is some cosmic flashlight that will cut through the darkness and light the way, but that is the textbook chasing of one’s tail.

We’re happy to trust God and His promises, as long as He lets us in on the plan. We beg for guidance when, as Brennan Manning used to say, what we really need is trust. “Give us a roadmap,” we plead, “so that we can plan accordingly.” We have control over so very little in life, but it’s never enough. We don’t want to get whacked downstream, so we hope for knowledge of when to duck. This path is fraught with problems and danger, yet we pursue it until the very end.

The result, as Blaise Pascal wrote, is that we never really live. The best we can do is hope to live, and so, like a butterfly we chase across life’s flower beds, happiness eludes us. It’s only available in the here and now anyway, but we’re all worried about what’s next. This is the life trap that addicts know so well, but it is by no means limited only to those who suffer this terrible affliction. I thank God for the knowledge gained through recovery that I am a spiritual being on a human journey, not the other way around. This has opened the door to the study and practice of being a better human than trying to be more spiritual, for in this reality, there is nothing I can do as a human to “be” more spiritual. The quest of recovery is not to quit the object or event to which we are addicted but rather to learn how to live without it. It begins and ends with learning to “live life on life’s terms” and not our own. Most people don’t know that the author of our AA literature, Bill Wilson, added a fourth line to the serenity prayer, “Thy will, not mine, be done.” “Thy” has always meant “Life” with a capital L, which is another term I use for God.

This constant staring at the darkened glass is a human insecurity born of our insistent demand for our own perfection. We’re on a quest to be spotless, even though we know it’s an unachievable goal. We need be perfect, because we can’t stand the way we feel about ourselves or our lot in life, and if we can’t actually BE better, we can at least LOOK better. We live a life of “what ifs,” and we just know that it would somehow be better, if we could just perform at a higher level. We gauge our internal feelings by what we see in others, unaware that they, too, are just as imperfect as we are.

These are the challenges of what C.S. Lewis wrote about when he compared humans to amphibians, able to exist in two differing realms simultaneously. We humans tend to think in linear terms and live within our senses, which is why we feel comfortable with an anthropomorphized God sitting on a metaphorical throne. But we also live in the spiritual dimension, where this “dark glass” doesn’t exist, because there is no yesterday or tomorrow in the spiritual realm. The spirit exists in an eternal here and now. Time and distance are created dimensions, linear concepts that trap us in a world we can’t control, and yet we insist we must. The pursuit of happiness is, after all, a self‐evident human right, right?

Like much of life, however, this is a paradox, for happiness depends on what’s happening, whereas the state of being happy, joyous, and free is one that doesn’t depend on external circumstances whatsoever. This is the place of human contentment, a safe zone to which we can retreat 24/7 to find rest and safety. Notice how David prays for this in Psalms 43:

O send out Thy light and Thy truth
And let them lead me.
Let them bring me unto Thy holy hill and to Thy tabernacle.
Then will I go unto the alter of God,
Unto God, my exceeding joy.
Yea, with harp will I praise Thee, O God, my God.
Why art thou cast down, O my soul?
Why art thou disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him
Who is the health of my countenance and my God.

This isn’t some great mystery. It’s David retreating to his place of safety, away from the things that trouble his soul, and into the arms of God’s perfect grace and peace. The concept is so simple that it confounds the very human souls for which it is intended and why David felt it necessary to remind himself through this Psalm.

And I hope that by sharing this today, I’ve reminded you, too. The darkened glass can never satisfy.