The good life is something a man doesn’t count on. Rather, he bets on it. Because if a man counts on it, he—in the most essential place—risks nothing. Obviously. Because he has it all figured out. The answers are all known. It has all been arranged and explained. Everyone agrees on the plan, encouraging the simple math. “2+2=4!” A high school diploma plus a college degree plus a 401k equals the good life. Therefore, the counting-on-it man is, quite simply, an accountant. Living by theory, but no great theoretician. Speaking about hypotheses and art and worth, but no originator of hypotheses, art, or anything worthy. Claiming things he never paid for. He parrots and copies. In the game of life this man places no great bet upon the table. He is merely a technician applying the most rigorous science to his faith while keeping the most rigorous faith in his science. His is an existence lacking in wonder or amazement. Where the only surprises are bad ones. When what he counts on doesn’t happen, he will stand in awe of his calculations, but because they are miscalculations, it will be an awful awe. He will become a tale of all the good that never happened.
To put it another way: Anyone counting on the good life as a reward for his sacrifice, nullifies the sacrifice. In essence, there is no real sacrifice to his sacrifice. In its essence, its aroma is foul. Because from his point of view whatever he sacrificed FOR was already his. “See, it’s already written down in my book,” he says tapping the page. “I risked 2, then I risked 2 more. And 2+2=4!”
But this is the opposite of risk. His sacrifices are always bloodless. His life is not a bet, where everything is on the line and he MAY YET win, but rather a safe and secure transaction on an alter loaded with expectations and assumptions and limp second fruits; where the only thing sure to be in short supply is Abel’s pleasure.
If there is no real risk, there is no real life. In reality, if there is no real risk, there is no reality. Because to really live is to risk it all.
On the day a man is born, he is born neither a blank page nor a completed instruction manual, he is born an adventure. It begins on page one with “Once upon a time…” and is followed by page after living page typed today, written a thousand years ago, chiseled ten thousand years ago, spoken ten thousand years from now, and sung forever. “And will he win? Will he love? Will he fall? We he rise? Is it a good one? Is it a good life?” You may ask.
“Don’t count on it." The man smiles. “Bet on it.”
Sacrificial systems stabilize society. Anywhere there have ever been humans this has been true.
But almost as soon as they do, they destabilize, because the system and all within it fall under the spell of a simple but powerful illusion:
Sacrifice must have a reason.
To sacrifice, to give, to do anything, to release energy in any form must have a reason. And the reason is so reasonable. The reason is getting. Not only that, the reason is in itself a getting. Therefore the motive force in the universe for giving energy away is getting. The math is: "If I give, do, say, release x...I'll get y." And the corollary: "I will sacrifice a today"...why? for what reason?..." for the promise of b tomorrow."
In the beginning, this divinely straightforward equation, as clear and simple as the bite of an apple, sits comfortably in the pit of our cosmos propelling existence into the future. But before long, a sacrificial/societal system emerges which exists for one thing: itself, as it consists entirely of individuals who also exist for one thing: themselves. By flawless arithmetic the soul is hollowed in exchange for oneself, and a waste of technological gadgetry is ejected all around. And yet we know as we stumble over enlarging piles of science and circuitry that some vital miscalculation has occurred. Some essential variable has been left out of our chronic transactional machine. And everyone, captivated by the math, yet unaware of its entropic effect, drifts like sediment towards zero.
Inevitably the stable society which, by definition, promises a benevolent future to its inhabitants, grows into a transactional god ninety cubits high. A thing of solid gold demanding each bow down to the sound of its drums and sacrifice if he is to receive its gifts.
But what about the God of reality? The Jesus of “you will always have later, but you will never have right now again.” What about the God whose pleasure descends as light and fire today upon a living alter bloody with faith--which is sacrifice beyond reason? What about the God of spontaneous, simultaneous, and coexistent sufficiency? When the proper sacrifice is made to the God of reality: which is to give pointlessly, give unreasonably, give only for giving itself, give all, and give best, expecting nothing in return—then stability does not abound...love does. And then not merely a stable society manifests, but rather a Promised Land gushing with milk and honey.
Because for every choice outside of paradise, there are actually two.
There is the choice one sees and the choice one doesn’t.
The choice to obey in spite of what one thinks...or not. And to obey is to take what one thinks at the fork in the road, lay it down, and sacrifice it.
Underlying every fork in the road is a more important fork in a more important road. A spiritual fork in a spiritual road. A road to life or death.
Crime is not a disease although it is treated as such. Like a patient with a disease, the criminal afflicted with crime is held in a sterilized environment waiting for remission or relapse; passively accepting life as a prisoner, asking the arbitrary and unanswerable question, "How much longer?" But crime is not passive and is not cured with passive measures. Behind it all is an active choice whose only cure is an active choice.
So what about a weak, lukewarm, anxious, unheroic life that never hits a bullseye (in short: a life of sin)?
This also is an active choice. It is not passive.
This is also a crime.
To be a mediocre Christian is impossible. It simply means to be a mediocre person. To live (or die) like a patient resigned to his distant fate--a mere innocent victim with a diagnosis of original sin waiting for its cure--is the sin. It is the choice to passively sit by as the disease takes its toll; choosing to live one's entire life in hospice because there is nothing else to do except wait. "Look, maybe I am in remission for awhile! Oh no, of course not, I have relapsed! The cure is not here and first, but out there and last! Well, at least I have a disease to blame it on!"
No! to be a sinner "neither hot nor cold" is not nearly as tepid and passive as it sounds. It is an active and thriving participation in the most heinous crime of all: the murder of LIFE. To live out a grayish mediocrity before the red blood and flowing water of Christ on the cross is a hatred of life. It is an act of violence against goodness, truth, and beauty--a choice to live opposite: to live in bland, dull, fearful clinginess.
A million tiny willful violations slowly accumulate into a life of empty insanity. And it takes a counterbalanced choice--a violent choice-- worth a million insanities to jump out of it:
It is Jonah's violent leap into the stormy sea that cures its rage and saves the foundering ship. It is Christ's headlong flight into the torrential furnace of Old Jerusalem and down the gullets of beasts that snuffs out fires in three days. It is always a singular act of volition, in bright opposition to all “common sense,” that everything terrible with a mouth regrets devouring. It quells and sickens the heart-fires of Old Jerusalems, Old Covenants, and Old Kings. It is then the irrevocable happens--from the depths comes a distant song:
“I lift my eyes to the hills.”
The earth lurches.
The Old Men, The Beasts, and The She-dragons have no choice but to hurl the new born back to shore.
New Jerusalem is here.
One way is to sacrifice everything for what you want.
The other is to sacrifice what you want for everything. And then, surprisingly, what you want appears as if it returned from the dead. And you come back down, for the first time realizing that what you want, you've always had.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
I have always been mystified by this verse. I have mostly read it as a description of God’s provision: a table set with mercy and blessing after a victorious battle; or something like a future hope to set my eyes on after a life spent battling the enemy. But this verse also has the echo of the ram prepared for Abraham; not in his presence; but just beyond, on the other side of his choice, in the presence of his enemy—which is Abraham himself—his “wanting.” And that lead me to reconsider: This psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd,” the fifth verse included, is about a lamb.
The purpose of the lamb is not be cared for—not to be guided—“for its own sake.” The purpose of the lamb is to be sacrificed.
I now imagine God preparing a table:
All is darkness; all is shadow; all is valley; all is enemy—eyes hungry—hearts devouring. Yet, in the center of the darkness, is a table. A lone figure stands in candle light; the only light in the valley; setting the table. It is the Shepherd. The Father. Waiting. In the presence of the lamb’s enemies—those hungry wolves and snarling lions leaning on their cushions— the shepherd clears the center of the table: the place the lamb will be laid. Like the cross being prepared for Christ. The lamb walks toward it. Accepting. Letting go. Listening. Following. Obeying. The Father, the shepherd, anoints the head of the lamb with oil—marking it—to reveal its purpose, like Jacob poured oil on the stone to reveal the center of the world. The center of the cross. It is time for the purpose of the lamb to be revealed. It is time for the king to satisfy his purpose—to take ultimate responsibility for his kingdom. The lamb lays in the center of the table and exposes his neck. The Father, the shepherd, raises his knife. Blood pours out; stains the wool, covers the threshold between darkness and light; protects, saves—cup after cup—guards all portals from death, opens them to life—to freedom.
And all this done in full view of his enemies— the Philistine, the Pharisee, the Saducee, the Roman, the Pharoah, the king and the governor, the Caesar, the slave, the zealot, the Jew, the gentile, the pious, and the pagan—crowded around the table. What a powerful image! And goodness and mercy follows. THEY FOLLOW. They ensue as a result of lamb’s willing acceptance of the Shepherd’s plan. A plan for victory over the powers of darkness through living sacrifice.
There is a strange overlay of patterns with Jesus’ view of those casting out demons in His name (in Matt. 7 and Mark 9), with the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4. There is an arbitrariness with which the Lord views their sacrifice. He does not say exactly why one is accepted and one is not—but He can smell the difference.
Why are you angry? Why are you angry when your sacrifices in life are not accepted and your brothers’ are? “Lord, Lord! Didn’t we…blah, blah, blah.”
“If you are good, will you not be accepted?”
“But if you are not good, then the idea of sin and sin-offering will be a creature that crouches at your door and desires to own you. But you can rule it.”
It does not matter whether I think the fruit of my labour is acceptable, it matters what God smells when it burns —when what I bring is exposed to judgment of heat and fire.
Oddly, frighteningly, the most important part of my action is not the result that I see, but the result that I don’t see—not the fruit that I produce, but how it tastes when it is consumed. I may cast out demons in Jesus’ name and still be just as possessed—by “I”, by “My”, by my desires. My sacrifice may be burnt on the alter, and the essence of my heart detected and rejected.
What is the difference between zero and 153?
Zero is darkness. Zero is blindness and nothing. Zero is neither hot nor cold. Zero holds the keys to hell. If we see life as giving us nothing, zero, then we are giving Satan back the keys to the gates of hell; and he gladly opens his dominion in our lives, behind our back, beneath our blindness. We are Polyphemus crying, “Nothing is killing me!”
Jesus says, “You’ve got it all wrong.”
What happens beyond the horizon? We don’t know. Only the sun knows.
What is the purpose of life?
Jesus says, “Loving me is giving. Loving me gives purpose that eternally calls and eternally satisfies.”
The young get what they want—go where they want. Those are brief satisfactions. They end when the goal is attained. So, therefore, that goal, that frame, must constantly be replaced by another goal another frame. It is eternally unsatisfying. “I’m going to get fish.” Wrong goal. Wrong “why.” Wrong frame. Satan just can’t wait to see those empty nets.
I’m sure Peter would ever reflect; maybe even while hanging inverted on his cross; remembering his nets, full to the bursting with 153 fish, as he helped drag them to shore:
Others will always—eternally—be unsatisfied, eternally dirty, hungry, thirsty, sick, hurting, dying. I will help. I will cast my nets the right way and for the right goal. I will stop being young and become old. I will make myself sicker, hungrier, dirtier, and die, because I know better—Christ taught me better—because I know how to satisfy. I know, now, the goal set before me by Christ: ‘Feed my sheep.’
The lamb that willingly sacrifices himself—sacrifices his wants, his goals, exposes his vulnerability— feeds all sheep, and becomes a new, perfect lamb willing to walk to the alter again. It is living. It is sacrifice.
It is the Way, the journey, that satisfies.