Stranded on a Desert Island...
In my experience, it isn’t those commonly-regarded as “bad” people who most genuinely object to the divinity of Jesus Christ and the path He laid for our salvation. Rather it’s “good” people, many of whom think that the narrow way He defined is too exclusionary for their assessment of what is fair and right.
Why, they question, should salvation and heaven be reserved just for Christians? What about those with different faiths and different cultures? What about those with no faith, but with lifetimes of good works? Many of these thoughtful people are left with what they see as just two choices: 1) If God exists He must not be “accessible” only through belief in Jesus Christ, but also by other means; or 2) God simply doesn’t exist.
Nevertheless, billions of people worldwide understand – at least to some degree – that Christians believe that just over 2,000 years ago a man who became known as Jesus Christ lived and died in Israel, and He was (and is!) the “only begotten Son of God,” and “one in being with the Father.” Furthermore, Christian belief holds that this Man-God was executed by Roman authorities, died, was buried, and came back to life three days later. After His resurrection, believers claim that Jesus occupied a unique dual status for a time, with a physical body that could touch and be touched, yet which also transcended normal limitations by doing things like appearing and disappearing. Shortly thereafter, He ascended to Heaven and “is seated at the right hand of the Father,” from where he rules, judges, intercedes, and intervenes.
But there is more. Christians also believe that there was a very deliberate purpose in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We’ll get to that in a bit.
First, let’s do a “thought experiment.” We’ll imagine that you were on a cruise with family and friends, and thanks to some disaster, a number of you ended up on the shore of a desert island. I assume that – even though you might feel inconvenienced and quite reasonably afraid – you might also feel some relief that you’re on dry land. After all, you’re not alone and you’re alive.
Of course, you now have to get on with the business of staying alive.
Let’s give you a cave you can shelter in, so you don’t immediately need to build a hut. But you will need to eat, so let’s go for a walk to see what we can find. But hold on a minute! You didn’t ask to be in this predicament, so why should you inconvenience yourself by searching for food? In fact, your cruise package included all-day, all-night, all-you-can-eat buffets, so you are quite within your “rights” to just sit there on your desert island beach and wait for the prime rib and cheesecake to be delivered to you!
I suppose that some people might try that for a little while, but I’m guessing that before a couple of days have passed everyone in your group of castaways would start taking that exploratory walk. In fact, I suspect that some would search quite earnestly and with a genuine sense of purpose!
So imagine the excitement, joy, and relief when your walk brings you to a tree laden with something you recognize: coconuts! Coconut meat has lots of calories to provide energy, saturated fat, and fiber to keep you regular (which is always a good idea when you’re experiencing a dramatic change in diet). It also provides the manganese, copper, selenium, phosphorus, potassium, and iron your body needs!
But you just don’t enjoy coconuts. So maybe you’ll wait a bit longer.
Another day goes by and you don’t really feel like walking. Perhaps this whole experience is really just an opportunity to work on your tan…
But by the next day you recognize that you’re seriously hungry. You stroll past the coconut tree where some of your friends are feasting, but you keep moving. After a while, you come upon what looks like a ring of trees with an open space at their center. It’s a pond…and it’s fresh water! And there are fish!
You sit for a while, enjoying the peaceful beauty. But isn’t there a case of beer and some potato chips that washed up on the shore yesterday waiting for you back in your cave? And fish? Ewww.
So it’s back to the cave. Another beer, another day on the beach. Another day closer to never going home.
Now I’m sure you say that you’d never act like that if you ever found yourself in such a ridiculous situation. But would you? Do we?
Christians believe that humankind have been marooned on a kind of desert island because we willfully rebelled against God. In retrospect, that rebellion shouldn’t be surprising, because God gave us free will when He created us.
Free will is complicated. Free will is one of the key elements in the belief that we are made “in God’s image,” and it’s the essence of everything that elevates us as individuals and as a species. When an athlete sets a record of some kind, it’s their effort that is most admirable, not their innate ability. It’s the fact that they have chosen to train and sacrifice, and have honed their talent beyond its raw state. It’s the understanding that the outcome of the athlete’s choices is performance that shows the rest of the world just how magnificent a creation a human being is.
It is awe-inspiring to see what human beings can be when they apply their free will to maximizing their abilities. An example is someone we designate a “hero,” and when we do so with all the gravitas the word really deserves. In those cases, calling someone a hero occurs when they have - by their own free will - chosen a course of action that is in the best interests of someone other than themselves. It’s reserved for when someone chooses to minimize their own health or wealth, safety or comfort, in order to benefit another person, group, or noble cause. And true heroism isn’t taking action when we have no choice. It’s taking action for the good of others when we could choose apathy or cowardice, and when apathy or cowardice might actually be in our own best interests!
Of course, we also have the free will to not make heroic choices. While we have the ability to make decisions that are useful, good, and noble, we also have the choice of not doing so. And we even have the choice of taking actions that harm us…and others.
Most of us accept that it’s not good for us to do nothing but lie on the couch all day, every day, just eating junk food, drinking beer, smoking, and watching reality TV shows. And, clearly, most of us live our lives somewhere between that unhealthy extreme and the opposite regimen of an athlete with extraordinary and practiced discipline in their diet, exercise, and habits. Similarly, while most of us accept that robbing banks and murdering people is not socially-acceptable behavior, we’re also not ready to truly live our lives altruistically and sacrificially in the absolute service of others.
But some people do live at each end of those behavior spectrums. They are rare, and they often make us uncomfortable. If they’re exceptionally good, we tend to say, “She’s great, but I don’t want to live my life that way.” And if they’re exceptionally bad, we’re often transfixed, not able to turn our eyes away from the train wreck.
It’s fair to consider that all of us are born with or develop different degrees of physical, mental, and social abilities. These may clearly define the upper limits of our accomplishments and may also support tendencies toward negative directions. While that’s true, human experience and cultural norms typically hold that we are ultimately accountable for our choices when we have a choice…even when making the “right” choice is difficult and when the “wrong” choice is easy. So, when our free will leads us to choose right (or “good”), society’s sense of fairness and justice is satisfied. When we choose wrong (or “evil”), society’s sense of fairness and justice is offended. In other words, free will is not without consequences. One way or another, our choices define our futures.
So…back to our desert island. You’ve been “offered” coconuts and fish, but you’ve chosen beer and lying on the beach or in your cave. You’ve likely begun a downward slide, and you’re slowly getting weaker by the day. You’re holding out hope that you’ll be rescued and everything just seems so unfair. You didn’t ask to be in this mess! But it seems that your life may come down to a decision…a choice:
Are you going to try the fish?
There are many reasons for not joining the fish-eaters, and most of them are insidious. For example, that old fable about boiling frogs may come into play. The story goes that if you drop a frog into a pot of hot water, it will immediately jump out, but if you drop it into some comfortable, room-temperature water and gradually increase the heat, the frog will adapt to the slow pace of the change that eventually kills it. Would this be our fate on our desert island? Would we just adapt to a life of idleness, getting by on the occasional case of beer and crate of potato chips that wash ashore? Would we die out-of-shape and sickly just because we didn’t try something that we thought didn’t suit us? And there are other objections to joining the fish-eaters, such as maintaining your individual freedom to choose according to your natural inclinations, or adoption of a hedonistic philosophy, or even the release that may come from the fatalistic acceptance of an unpleasant outcome.
Now please humor me for a moment (continuing our thought experiment) and assume that we are in fact the creation of an all-powerful and timeless Being we call God. And let’s assume that something went wrong at some point after our creation and we ended up in a world where we have some real challenges.
In other words, let’s assume that we got dumped off our metaphorical cruise ship and ended up on a metaphorical desert island: Planet Earth.
This world we inhabit seems to have a mix of blessings and curses. There are threats to our very existence, yet there are resources and solutions if we make the right choices and apply the right efforts. But there are also bad courses of action available to us. We can be lazy and uncooperative. We can steal and we can kill. We can follow a selfish and shallow philosophy, indulging our basest desires and appetites while we can, accepting that we’re doomed to lose in the end, and choosing simply to gratify every desire.
But what if the God who created us (as you continue to humor me during our thought experiment) provided us with fish and coconuts while we wait to be rescued from the island?
Are you going to try them, or are you going to just lie on the beach and drink the beer that washed ashore? It’s your choice. And that brings us to the purpose for Jesus Christ’s life on earth as one of us, fully God, yet also fully man at the same time (I promised I’d eventually get back to that!).
Jesus told us that the end result of our universal rebellion against God is death, and not just death in a “go to sleep and don’t wake up” way, but rather as an eternal suffering. That’s an inevitable consequence of making a bad choice when we have free will. Choose to be a criminal, hurt other people, and abuse your own body, and most people will say you get what you deserve. Choose to not seek a pardon for your rebellion against God, though, and many people will say, “Oh, He shouldn’t be so hard on them. They weren’t that bad…”
Jesus told us that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and he also told us exactly what we need to do to embark on that one-and-only Way to salvation. He also told us the truth about our Father in heaven and how to live lives that please, honor, and serve Him. And perhaps the greatest offer of all is that Jesus not only showed us how to live and gave His life for us, but also hints that “real life” is not what we see every day in our own little world, or even what we think a perfect life might be. Instead, it is something beyond our imagination: the joy of perfect communion with the Creator of all that ever was, is, and will be…the One who said His name is “I AM.”
Christians actually believe that our world is the equivalent of a desert island, and it’s not our real home. The one true God has promised to rescue us, and He’s provided us with what we need in the interim. But we have to look for it and be willing to taste what is revealed to us. It is our choice whether we do so, but we are accountable for that choice. We have free will, and God is not going to force-feed us. He will lead us to water, but he won’t make us drink.
The Bible tells us that God reveals Himself to those who sincerely seek Him. This is an absolute truth, but it includes a very real demand on us: we must be willing to “try the fish.” If we were really stuck on an island and were slowly starving, we would be responsible for our own survival by utilizing the solutions and resources that were available. That wouldn’t mean we’d have to magically conjure nourishment out of thin air, but it would mean that we would have to be willing to taste that which has been provided for us. There’s an old joke about a man who’s caught in a flood, and he’s sitting on the roof of his house with the waters lapping at his feet. A man in a canoe paddles up to him and calls for him to climb in and be rescued, but he answers “No, thanks. I trust that God will save me.” An hour or so later, with the waters still rising, a motorboat comes up to him and the occupants tell him to jump in and join them, but he answers “No, thanks. I trust that God will save me.” Finally, with the man standing on his tiptoes on the top of his chimney, a helicopter drops him a rope, but he waves the rescuers off, calling out “No, thanks. I trust that God will save me!” Moments later, a surge of floodwater sweeps him off his roof and he drowns. Standing before St. Peter (no, Christians don’t really believe this is how it happens!), the man says angrily “What’s was that all about?!! I had faith that God would save me and He didn’t rescue me!” St. Peter gazes at the man sadly and shakes his head. “We sent you a canoe, a motorboat, and a helicopter,” he replies. “What more did you want?”
The message, of course, is that the man on the roof didn’t want the solutions that were offered. He wanted the solution that suited him. It’s also like a rhyme I remember from many years ago: “Here lies the body of poor John Jay, who died maintaining his right-of-way. He was right – dead right – as he sped along, but he’s just as dead as if he’d been dead wrong.”
So imagine that others on our symbolic island have discovered the fish and coconuts and are flourishing. They may have had to overcome some initial resistance and even their taste preferences, but – perhaps surprisingly to them – they adapted well and became strong and healthy. They have formed cooperatives to better utilize their individual skills and talents and to take care of those who may need extra help. They have developed systems to support the continued supply of fish and coconuts. They have passed their knowledge on to their children and others who have wondered about the way of life they have discovered.
But imagine that some people just refused to join them. They don’t like the taste of the fish and coconuts, and maybe they don’t like the people who eat them. Perhaps the cooperatives the fish-eaters formed – let’s call them “churches” – sometimes behaved badly, and perhaps there were occasions of corruption, greed, and violence. So some people decided they’d turn their backs on the fish-eaters, and they continued to subsist on the cases of beer, carbonated soft drinks, and potato chips that have washed ashore. And they began to die.
But not all of those who won’t eat the fish are disaffected or simply hedonists. There are also very smart people who won’t touch them.
Some of the smart people just don’t believe that fish are good for them. They’ve done studies and concluded that fish-farming and eating is bad for your health, bad for the environment, and ethically wrong. They can present very rational arguments why they should avoid fish, and they feel mildly outraged with, yet also quite sorry for, those who eat them. Still, there is the undeniable fact that those who do partake seem healthier and often happier…
There are some who won’t eat the fish and coconuts because they grew up in a culture that had an entirely different diet, and because their ancestors didn’t eat them, they also refuse to.
And there is, sadly, another group who won’t eat the fish and coconuts. These are the people who just keep looking for something “better.” Some of them seem to be more interested in the exploration experience rather than a genuine search for truth and sustenance. Many of them are exciting to be around; they seem to find joy in the journey and are always energetic, but they take no pleasure in the destination, perhaps because they can’t really imagine what a “destination” is. They believe that the grass must be greener just over the next hill, and there is always a next hill.
Of course, the fish-eaters in our parable would find it amazing and incomprehensible when those who don’t join them are satisfied with their choice…or when they don’t seem to be capable of seeing the difference between those who are healthy and those who are dying. The fish-eaters would try – often clumsily and with no effect – to persuade those who have never tried the fish to give it a shot. But they keep hearing that the unconverted just don’t like the smell or the texture. Or that the beer and potato chips are just as good. “Just try the fish,” they beg their friends. “It will change everything!”
So, how do I know that God will reveal Himself to those who sincerely seek Him? In the Old Testament, the Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 29, Verse 13, reads “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” In the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 7, Verse 7, quotes Jesus as saying ““Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you,” and Luke 11:9 repeats His message: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” But my proofs are Biblical, so what use are they?
That brings us to the biggest “Catch-22” in all of religion. We are promised salvation and a relationship with God if we have faith, but how are we supposed to believe if we can’t see what’s on the other side of the door?
I think that the answer is that we should proceed through our lives with a humble and open attitude. That attitude will enable us to approach the Door (yes, I’m now capitalizing it!) and knock, waiting to see what is revealed to us when it is opened. This attitude and philosophy, however, is in clear contrast with the notion of the human ideal outlined in William Henley’s Victorian-era poem Invictus, which famously proclaimed “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.” Henley believed – and many others believe today – that we don’t need to be doing any Door-knocking and waiting. They believe that we are in charge and not subject to anything or anyone. Pretty appealing, huh?
That, unfortunately, is the essence behind the Biblical story of the Fall of Man. I’m not sure that most people realize it, but the “original sin” that led to our separation from God was our desire to “be like God.” It was our desire to elevate ourselves for our own glorification, to be the “master of (our) fate” and “the captain of (our) soul.”
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?" And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'" But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis Chapter 3, Verses 1-4).
Let me be clear. God is the Creator of all that ever was, is now, and ever will be. He is eternal and immortal, without beginning or end, and is the definition of perfection. He is without equal and exists outside of any limits, and the concepts of justice, righteousness, and love cannot be understood outside of His character, which fully-encompasses and defines those ideas.
And we humans want to raise ourselves to His status, to anoint ourselves His equals?!!
No matter how we puff out our chests and exclaim “I am the master of my fate! I am the captain of my soul!” we are not! We are mortal and we constantly make wrong choices. And our “power” is not only puny when compared with God, but also with many of His other creations!
On one side of the “Door” between us and God is the blindness we have because of our sinful nature, our arrogance in thinking that we are His equals, and our insistence in finding and following our own paths instead of that which He has provided for us. Imagine – please humor me again! – that you’ve been out of the country for a few years with a group of friends, but have made your way back to your hometown in the middle of winter. There’s snow on the ground, you’re hungry, and you slog wearily toward your old family home. The mailbox still has your parents’ name on it, and you hear music and happy voices inside. But instead of knocking on the door to be welcomed with joy, warmth, and food, some of you decide to just keep wandering around in the snow, while others try to climb up the wall to get in through the windows. And sadly, a few just keep banging their heads against the bricks, hoping that their skulls are stronger than the walls keeping them out. The answer is right in front of you if you’re willing: just knock on the Door!
The 17th Century French philosopher, mathematician, inventor, and all-around genius Blaise Pascal argued that if we do not know whether God exists, then the smart decision is to believe in Him because the benefits of belief for us far outweigh the costs of believing. Similarly, the cost of unbelief if God does exist is so high that it is a risk no sane person should take. That’s fine (after all, the benefit of heaven when you die and having the almighty Creator and Ruler of the universe on your side while you live certainly outweigh the costs of living a Christian life), but I don’t really think you can trick yourself into believing something that’s doesn’t feel true in your heart. So how can you follow Pascal’s advice?
The answer is to humbly and sincerely seek God through the Door He provided for us: His Son, Jesus Christ. Just knock and ask “Jesus, please show me Your way. I want more out of this life, but I need You to take my hand and lead me. I accept that I am not the master of my fate or the captain of my soul, and I am trusting You to guide me and save me. I surrender my vain pretensions of being like You, and I ask you to save me and welcome me as Your beloved child.”
Then walk through that Door! Don’t just stand there, step through, and walk around. Continue to be humble, open, and honest, and keep asking Jesus to guide you. You’ll occasionally stumble and bump into a few things, but I’m confident that you will love your new surroundings.
You will also discover that you’re not alone. You will become more aware of thoughts, occurrences, and opportunities that gently intrude upon your life, prompting you to speed up, slow down, or change direction in some way. And the more you commit to aligning yourself with God’s will, the more attuned you’ll become to discerning it.
In spite of my discovery of the reality of God and the divinity of Jesus during my college years, I spent much of my life pushing Them into the margins of my life, giving Them the meager remaining scraps of my time, effort, and commitment after devoting most of my energy to my family, my job, and the distractions I found most enjoyable. But after I retired and spent more time in focused, committed prayer, my understanding of God’s will for me and my discernment of the opportunities He presents to me increased dramatically in their clarity.
Even when we have chosen Jesus Christ as our Answer, it can be hard for us to break our old ingrained habit of trying to “be like God.” I’m aware of just two ways this can resolve: either we allow Him to lead us, or He will allow us to be broken so He can rebuild us from the pieces. But – as the ultimate “parent” – He will never, ever, fail us. And we’ll talk about that more in the future.