“Through sanctification, God purifies our hearts and reveals to us their intended goodness. Divorced from His will, our hearts are not worth following. At the same time, though, God designed us with deep longings in our hearts – longings that may be left unmet and aching in the dissonance of this fallen world, but which can ultimately point us back to Him.”
I wrote these words in Questing & Distracted Driving last summer, and they’ve been bothering me ever since. Not because I don’t like the words, but because I like them so much and said so little about them. They’re a vital foundation for that post’s exploration of the joys and frustrations of our hearts (or mine, anyway).
Melancholy, my favorite writing-fuel, persists in all the best and worst ways. I’ve recently found an intentional outlet for some of this in poetry – both reading and writing it. One of the more interesting poets I’ve been able to read is Charles Bukowski, whose verse and life both seem to be characterized by an unstructured freedom. While I do enjoy reading Charles, I don’t think I can agree with his methods.
Despite what is sometimes believed, I’m not sure art is created from excess. Beautiful things do not spring from an undisciplined, unrestrained lifestyle. When creations are truly beautiful, they point us to the Creator who is perfectly True, Good, and Beautiful. (I find it interesting that a collection of Bukowski’s poetry written near the end of his life, “Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way,” identifies two of Scriptures’ titles for Jesus as the hope amidst worldly chaos.)
But I have to be honest: I’ve spent twenty years learning the rules, and sometimes… I get tired of it. I read John 10:10 and think “Okay… but when?” I don’t think Christianity means “hope for the future, but misery now,” but so often that seems like the message we put out.
Don’t get me wrong – I know we are given guidelines to live by! But we are also given freedom in Christ. “Living the Christian life” doesn’t mean “never having any fun.” Jesus came that we may have life to the full, and he defines what that looks like for us.
I am torn within myself between discipline and freedom. This tension, evident even in the back-and-forth of the previous paragraph, only becomes dissonance when my flesh desires “freedom” beyond what holy discipline allows. Learning to live life to the full means learning to experience the freedom, with all its joys, within the boundaries.
Imagine a lush garden stretching so far that even a bird’s-eye view can’t see its end. Just before it drops off the horizon, a wall at the border curves, suggesting that the garden is one gigantic circle. I’m walking along this boundary wall and examining the stone bricks. It’s impressive craftsmanship, to be fair, equally beautiful and functional; hands much larger than mine must have put it together. But, at the end of the day, if all I ever do is study the wall, I’ll miss out on the garden behind me – and I’m beginning to suspect that this garden expands ever inwardly toward a Center. Who knows what I might find, if I ever realize I’m free to leave the fringes?
This is what I meant when I wrote that our hearts are not worth following apart from God’s boundaries but are trustworthy under His sanctification. Our longings are intended to draw us into the garden. At the wall, we might be tricked by whispers from the other side that stepping over that line leads to a greater adventure, because surely Whoever built this wall is intent on keeping us cruelly confined. But this is not the case!
Jesus’ promise of life to the full is found after one of the “I am” statements of John’s gospel. Jesus claims to be “the gate” for the sheep (that’s us). Fullness, then, is not boundlessness. It is experienced within the pen, entered into through Christ himself.
Again, I find myself doubting – doubting that I can keep myself from leaving the garden, doubting that fullness can really be found within. I know we can’t overemphasize salvation, but I wonder if we fail to follow through on the message. To paraphrase from a sermon by pastor Mark Christian: “There is so much more beyond being saved from your sin!”
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes to both Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were familiar with the Law, which was, in a way, the “wall” of boundaries God had given in the Old Testament to guide the way His people lived. But some of the Jewish people had become so focused on studying the wall that 1) they forgot to look behind them and 2) they didn’t want to let any of the Gentile outsiders in through the gate! Paul teaches that the Gentiles have entered by faith, even as many Jews stepped over the line in their focus on it. In Romans 6, he describes freedom within the garden with the seemingly strange metaphor of slavery.
“Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. …now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 6:15-18, 22-23
The wall is a gracious gift, then! Like a sapling that relies on a stake for structure as it grows into a tree, we need it. Learning the boundaries is vital; as we mature, we establish assurance of the teachings that provide our boundaries. Once we’re familiar with them, we can realize that we don’t need to live testing the outer wall.
The author of Hebrews provides another metaphor for us. In the earliest stages of our lives, we all relied on milk to sustain us and help us grow. It had everything we needed for that level of development! But as we grew up, we began needing solid food instead. Hebrews states that our faith is the same way: “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Therefore, let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity…. And God permitting, we will do so.”
I’m a little wary of posting these things on the Internet, solely because I’m writing as a very young person (albeit with a relatively decent amount of experience walking in faith) under the assumption that my audience is mostly comprised of people who know and believe the truth of Christ revealed in the Bible. This stepping deeper into the garden, I think, requires having the foundation of the wall well-laid in your heart.
But at the same time, shouldn’t the offer of the garden be our primary selling point for Christianity? We can’t neglect the work and attention due to the wall, but there is more to offer! I believe it wholeheartedly, and I might even be beginning to step into it. I am reaching with an outstretched hand toward the trees, even if the fingertips of my other hand are still grazing the stone wall.
I wonder if this is experiential knowledge, similar to the first leap of belief in Christ upon accepting salvation – there’s something about it that cannot be intrinsically understood from the outside. Unless you’ve taken the jump yourself, you won’t fully know it. I’m hesitant to describe my youthfully under-construction awareness of what “life to the full” means for fear of misrepresenting faith in Jesus. I think it can be increasingly understood with time and maturity, but we must also (perhaps first and foremost?) recognize our hope in Christ amidst the chaos of this life.
So, acknowledging the purposes of this blog as an exercise in articulation and a documentation of my own development, aware of my semi-matured state, I will consider moving beyond elementary teachings and onto solid food to test whether I can stomach it.
If we leave the perimeter but remain inside the garden, we are not walking “away” from the wall. Stepping deeper into the garden does not mean we are any less within the boundaries, but that we are actually drawing nearer to the Center! This is the way to “follow your heart” – by confining it within holy boundaries and, in doing so, finding freedom.
I can say this poetically without actually knowing how to describe it practically. I still need to take the leap before I can understand it by experience. With one hand still touching the wall, all I’m saying now is that I’m ready to go (in C.S. Lewis’ words) further up and further in.
- John 10 - Jesus the gate & shepherd, offering life to the full - Galatians 5 - Freedom in Christ - Romans 1:8-15 - Paul's longing to see the Gentiles & his obligation to the Gospel - Romans 6 - Slaves to righteousness - Hebrews 5:13-6:3 - Maturity in faith - Genesis 2-3 - Humanity's origin in a similar garden - John 15:1-4 - Bearing fruit by abiding in Christ