Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Islands Shouting Lies

“We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.”
— Rudyard Kipling, The Light That Failed

The public life that we lead is a fa├žade; a mask we wear that is in large measure demonstrably false, primarily because it is an incomplete representation of who we truly are in private.

There are three reasons for this division between the public and the private life.

Secrets of Obscurity

We are unknown to others by virtue of what I will call the secrets of obscurity, or those things which we do not share. The human mind works far faster than the tongue can move; we think far more than we could ever clearly communicate to another. Consequently, there must always be a filtering that occurs between what we think and what we say; a process by which we determine not to communicate the vast majority of what passes through our minds.

At the moment you read this sentence you are simultaneously considering thousands of inputs from the physical world around you. You are unconsciously deciding whether to elevate hunger- or thirst-prompts from your body; you are considering whether you need your glasses, or perhaps an additional light source by which you can continue reading. Beyond these basic mental functions, and at a somewhat higher level, your mind contemporaneously whirls through a list of chores to complete at work, worries that you carry for your family, observations about others who seem to spring randomly to mind, inferences you are drawing about those around you currently, and a litany of other considerations.

You will not share most of these thoughts with anyone else — not even those closest to you. If you wished to do so, you could not. There is simply not enough time in the world to openly communicate all that you think.

This inability to communicate everything is, in part, a great blessing; we often come to regret the things we do choose to share verbally and wish that we had thought more before speaking. We quickly tire of, and learn to avoid, those people who dominate conversations and share endless, seemingly pointless, details.

Being prevented from sharing everything that we think necessarily creates a distance between our inner life and the public face we present. We choose (hopefully) to share a subset of our thoughts, those things that are salient or interesting, and we communicate only when an opportunity to do so presents itself. This, then, is the secret life of obscurity — an insurmountable distance that is placed between human beings because of the barriers of finite time and human attention.

Secrets of Intention

Secondly, we can consider the secrets of intention or those things we will not share. Intentional secrets are things that we could communicate, but have determined not to share. In 2 Corinthians 4:2, Paul writes of the “secret things of shame” and when he makes that reference, we all understand his point without much additional elaboration. There are many things that each of us could share but choose not to do so — things we will not willingly, often or perhaps ever disclose because we are ashamed.

But there are also secrets of intention that are not shameful. Peter encourages wives who wish to appeal to God to consider far more than how to braid their hair or what jewelry to wear on the outside. Those sorts of things may impress those who value externals, but God wasn’t ever impressed by externals and he’s not about to be amazed by how pretty you are from a solely cosmetic view, no matter how hard you work at it.

Instead in 1 Peter 3:4 we are told that God sees the “secret person of the heart” and finds a quiet and submissive spirit to be an immensely precious thing; it is the “unfading beauty” of a serene inner life that has an appeal to him.

There is nothing whatsoever that is shameful about the distinctively Christian strength of character that teaches us to cease loudly complaining and demanding our place in the sun, and instead consistently and quietly rest in the eventual justice God will bring.

The Lord Jesus reflects this on any number of occasions. His example of quiet submission in the face of multiple provocations did not escape Peter’s notice or pen, for it is Peter who writes this of the Lord Jesus:
“When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
Those things about which we could complain but choose to quietly and secretly entrust to God instead — for that is what submission ultimately means — are beautiful hallmarks of Christian maturity.

Like the secrets of obscurity before them, secrets of intention — both the shameful commissions and the glorious omissions — isolate us from our fellow men. Because we will not reveal all that has shaped us, we present a public face that is not fully reflective of who we are.

Secrets of Inability

Beyond what we do not express and what we will not express, there is yet a third type of secret each of us keep — the things we cannot express, even to those we love and with whom we choose to spend our lives. These are the secrets of inability. These are the transcendent moments in each life; an instant where some unanticipated experience transports us beyond the normal human routine and touches our souls deeply.

Who among us hasn’t passed along a piece of music or a book that particularly moved us, only to find the recipient of our gift mumbling something like: “Hmm, yeah, that was ... different ... I’m glad you liked it”. The books we gave or the CDs we passed along are later found — largely unworn. These illusory moments of joy are not communicable. We’d like to share them, we try to share them, but we fail.

Similarly, moments of deep grief cannot be shared. We stand in line at the funeral and we stumble through “I’m sorry” or “I sympathize”. But the truth is, we do not fully understand the grief of others as much as we wish we did. There are those I love who carry tremendous burdens. If I could with a word lighten their load by assuming some of the weight they carry, I would do it. But it isn’t possible, for on a solely human level we never truly understand or feel or share the fullness of the pain that others carry.

Sorrow cannot be fully communicated. Joy cannot be fully communicated. Though they are the powerful spiritual forces that shape our character and make us who we are, these forces will always remain the secret domain of each soul. Kipling, in this sense at least, is right — we’re all islands; we live and die alone no matter how long we spend in the company of other human beings. Unavoidable secrecy segregates us and divide us — the secrets of obscurity, of intention and of inability; the things we do not, will not and cannot share.

Soul-Level Loneliness

Perhaps this paints a picture of the human condition that is disturbing to consider; isolation and soul-level loneliness seem ‘baked in’ to our lives. And so they are, absent God.

The seven letters to the churches in Revelation — whether commending or condemning — all begin with these words of the Lord Jesus: “I know”. If it is a question of circumstance and suffering, he knows. If it is a question of spiritual victory and joy, he knows. If it is a question of doctrinal departure or toleration of sin, he knows. So too, Matthew 6’s opening verses make the repeated point that God is a God who “sees in secret” and that God dwells in secret. If that were not enough, Hebrews 4:13 puts it this way: “Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”

There is a correspondence, an ultimate answer to the secrets of men’s hearts. But Kipling couldn’t find it. The answer isn’t in earth, it’s in heaven. The answer isn’t to seek comfort in a ‘soulmate’ (for there is no such human intimacy possible). The answer is to seek communion with God himself.

God is the Answer

God is the answer to the secrets of inability; he sees what you do not share. The God who names the stars without missing a single one is the same God who counts the hairs of your head. This is a God who does see each and every ephemeral thought and understands you utterly. Psalm 139 puts it this way:
“You understand my thought from afar … even before there is a word on my tongue, you know it all. You have enclosed me behind and before and laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, I cannot attain to it.”
God is also the answer to the secrets of intention, the things we will not share. 1 Corinthians 4:5 puts it this way:
“… wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden [literally, “secret”] in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts.”
While these words present a sobering and perhaps terrifying prospect for those who expend their lives denying Christ’s offer of salvation, it is not so for those who trust him. For the same verse finishes this way: “… then each man’s praise will come to him from God”. The revelation of the secret things of a believer’s heart results in praise, not condemnation. We may well be discouraged that many of our kindest intentions and many of our most self-sacrificing good works have gone unnoticed and unremarked, but it will not always remain so. God remembers things that have been long forgotten and will bring them to light. We are not alone or isolated from God because of the things we have intentionally kept secret.

God is finally, and perhaps most encouragingly, the answer to the secrets of inability. The deep joys and deep sorrows of the human heart are not a mystery to heaven; no less an authority than Christ himself reminds us in John 15:11 “These things I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full”.

So too, Christ understands suffering in a way no other man ever has or could. Hebrews 2 reminds us that Christ “tasted death for everyone” and that the author of salvation was himself perfected through suffering. Isaiah prophetically foresaw Christ as one who would carry not only our sins, but also our sorrows; it is with “his stripes we are healed”.

Are we alone? Isolated? Kipling thought so, and in the sense of fallen humankind, it is a bitingly accurate and bleak assessment. But God dwells and sees in secret and it is in him that we find our home:
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.”

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