As a child growing up in a Protestant community in Iowa, I received instruction in the Christian tradition, which included memorization of a few Bible verses. The one that was emphasized above all the others was John 3: 16.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
As children we accepted this without question—as young children do—assenting to all our elders claimed was true. The assertion at the beginning of that statement is a comforting thought: God loves the world. The Creator loves his creation and all his children. This is the elementary religious doctrine that we were given.
While still a child I received yet another introduction to truth, this time distinguishable from the institutions of church and family. Though this introduction was not clothed in religious language or ideas, it was intrinsically “religious,” as it was full of wonder and arose following a question from my father about ethics. At the time it occurred and for decades after, I did not realize its pertinence to the life of the spirit. Many years passed before I came to understand that at a particular moment in time there had been an opening, and the boundaries of mundane life had momentarily disappeared from view. So, having relayed the benevolent doctrinal introduction, I’ll now speak of the experiential.
At the age of seven or eight, I played the card game Solitaire for hours on end. It pleased me to move the many cards about according to rules, rules that allowed the game to progress steadily toward a conclusion, which was orderly and complete. I didn’t always win, however; in fact, winning was a rarity. So, this idea came to me: when all the cards had been played, and I could go no further in a particular game, I would take the liberty of turning over one card that shouldn’t have been turned over. This I called “cheating.” A good game would involve cheating only a few times; whereas in a bad game I would cheat many times.
One day, after a very good game, I ran to my father and said, “I won at Solitaire, and I only had to cheat once!” Smiling down at me with twinkling irony, he asked, “When you cheat at Solitaire, you know who you’re cheating, don’t you?” That question in some wonderful and mysterious way precipitated the opening of an expansive reality, which left that moment in time imprinted deeply on my memory, beyond what the event itself would suggest.
These memories from my childhood refer to distinct kinds of preliminary exposure to truth: first, to institutional doctrines set in religious language and tradition – to which many of us have been exposed and have accepted as children, and second – to an inward encounter.
There were no further openings in my childhood, and several years later, I entered adolescence. As my childish things were put away, my spirit, for no apparent reason, began steadily sinking into heavy despair, which is not unusual for teenagers. I was in the world but not of it, nor yet of any other place. I felt closed off from life, entombed and spiritually dead. For the next two decades, life seemed to me to be one long-running futility. There I was: still breathing, eating, and moving about more or less, absurdly alive and healthy in body, meeting responsibilities, getting on with life, and yet, without real meaning or purpose. Something was missing from my life, and I would have felt cheated, had I believed that there was any game, order, or rules in life that had been violated. It was a dark, depressing, frustrating, irritating, enraging and deadening time. There was an unbreachable gap between the orthodox assertion we had been given as children, that God loved the world, that He was in heaven and all was right; a gap between this idyllic claim and my undeniable experience of living death and despair.
Throughout this dark time I had no idea that I was in the throes of a regular spiritual process, another kind of game if you will, a game with rules and a goal. Though I did not know it, I was learning this new game, this new and living way. In this game, neither I, nor my family, nor any institution was to be the arbiter, and only through seeing and “feeling the futility of all former and other ways,” was I to be readied to receive this new way of faith.
The new way that I was yet to find was this: as a person I would receive the life and power that the Creator gives, only after having painfully learned and accepted that I was not the source and center of my life, not the Creator, but a creature. The creature, the person was to receive Life, receive Wisdom, receive Love, Peace, Righteousness, to receive Grace and Truth. I was not creatively to cobble together some reasonable, passable facsimile of these virtues. Inevitably it comes to one’s attention that one’s fine construction has missed the mark, fallen short, or fallen apart when subjected to the challenges and stresses of stormy reality, like a house built upon the sand (Mt. 7:26).
I had assumed that I could adequately construct my life on principles and values that I had chosen; “good” principles they were, “Quaker” values. The existential anguish and loneliness that accompanied my aim to generate some personal dignity were symptoms that haunted me, as they have haunted many who have lodged captive in this darkened state.
Though I didn’t know it through those long years, the end goal of this process was to become an established and mature human being, to have “life and immortality brought to light” (Journal, 16) and become visible and knowable within. I was waiting in darkness, neither seeing nor claiming to see. Unlike in the game of Solitaire at age eight, the essential rules of the “game” were kept, the rules which are written in the soul: don’t renege on what you see; don’t make claims to see when you don’t; be attentive and truthful with yourself about your inward state.
George Fox speaks of this most trying time in his Journal, both in describing his own inward transformation and similarly, in the transformation his ministry was to precipitate in others: I was to bring people off from all their own ways to Christ, the new and living way (Journal, 35). The law to which he refers in the following passage could be paraphrased: don’t put your trust in human discernment; it’s an inadequate substitute for Christ, the wisdom of God:
I saw this law was the pure love of God which was upon me, and which I must go through, though I was troubled while I was under it; for I could not be dead to the law but through the law which did judge and condemn that which is to be condemned. I saw many talked of the law, who had never known the law to be their schoolmaster; and many talked of the Gospel of Christ, who had never known life and immortality brought to light in them by it. You that have been under that schoolmaster, and the condemnation of it, know these things; for though the Lord in that day opened these things unto me in secret, they have since been published by his eternal spirit, as on a house-top. And as you are brought into the law, and through the law to be dead to it, and witness the righteousness of the law fulfilled in you, ye will afterwards come to know what it is to be brought into the faith, and through faith from under the law. And abiding in the faith which Christ is the author of, ye will have peace and access to God (Journal, 16).
Let me draw your attention to Fox’s initial statement: “I saw this law was the pure love of God…which I must go through, though I was troubled while I was under it.” Though this law is the pure love of God, it is troubling “to the selfish, fleshly, earthly will which reigns in its own knowledge and understanding” (Journal, 17). To us in our natural, earthly-minded state, God’s law does not seem like love, but instead a tormenting judgment. Rather than bear this dark, troubling time, facing the emptiness of one’s own knowledge and understanding, rather than bear this, many choose an easier route and excuse themselves from humbly waiting in darkness, preferring instead to make claims for themselves and for their understanding. Fox found those who made these false claims particularly hard to bear:
I had a sense and discerning given me by the Lord, through which I saw plainly that when many people talked of God and of Christ, etc., the Serpent spoke in them; but this was hard to be borne (Journal, 20-21).
Of course, then as now, such falseness is not solely the habit of those who speak deceitfully of inward familiarity with Christ. Deceit is a universal phenomenon, not confined to any particular time or place. And so is the truth (the way and the life) that frees us from it (Jn. 8:32; 14:6).
If we are eventually to know that perfect freedom in spirit and in truth, we must begin where we are to honor the truth, even though our knowledge is riddled and imperfect. No force can compel us to honor truth, if we are otherwise disposed. Yet, prophets, who have seen what is at stake, have urged us to do so, warning against the counterfeiting of perception:
Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter (Isa. 5:20)!
It is an intentionally wicked or carelessly slothful distortion that Isaiah warns against. Yet, one doesn’t live long in the world before discovering that obscuring the truth is routine fare: “they hate the truth for the sake of whatever it is they love instead of truth” (Augustine, 233).
It is here that one must question oneself: When you hate and obscure the truth from yourself, you know whom you’re cheating, don’t you?
And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil (Jn. 3:19).
To refuse to see, is to forego the gift God has prepared for each of us. Unless we acknowledge and act upon the guidance that we each are given through our individual consciences, we will fare as the wicked and slothful servant in Matthew 25, seeing the one talent that has been given taken away and given to another who has ten.
Early Friends found that the doctrines of our tradition can be seamlessly integrated with mature, inward experience. This inward experience followed hard upon the shaking and demise of their own ways, their own thoughts; so that those things which could not be shaken might remain (He. 12:27). Peace and access to God is possible, Fox and other early Friends affirmed. They preached this gospel, as on the house-top, that others too, might see and hear what had been hidden and obscured, as it once had been obscured to themselves. The first work of Friends was (and still is) to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised (Lk. 4:18). Yes, the Word does convict each and every one, and it will be a troubling time initially for those who patiently wait, honoring the truth. But he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved (Mk. 13:13b).
That God loves the world, we heard as children; that God loves the world, we now know, for we have felt that love and not simply inferred it. Not only do we know God’s love, but also peace, righteousness, and wisdom, all received from God, clearly not by our own best efforts, but received from God whose thoughts and ways are higher than our thoughts and ways (Isa. 55:9).
Therefore, all wait patiently upon the Lord, whatsoever condition you be in; wait in the grace and truth that comes by Jesus; for if ye so do, there is a promise to you, and the Lord God will fulfil it in you. And blessed are all they indeed that do hunger and thirst after righteousness; they shall be satisfied with it. I have found it so, praised be the Lord who filleth with it, and satisfieth the desires of the hungry soul (Journal, 13).