To paraphrase an old country song, too many of us are “looking for life in all the wrong places.” It’s a shame, too. After all, just our being here is a miracle.
In her novel We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates writes of a mother named Corinne who, when she was a girl, was in an automobile accident in which her mother was driving. It was 1930s New York State in the wintertime and an unexpected blizzard hit as they were driving home to their farm. The car slid off a ramp going onto a bridge and ended up in the drainage ditch below. The two of them crawled out of the car and started walking, they hoped to a nearby farm. But the driving snow and the bitter cold caused them to become disoriented so that they were walking in circles.
Suddenly a swarm of fireflies appeared before them in the midst of the falling snow and they followed the fireflies to a country schoolhouse. They broke in and built a fire in the stove and thus were saved, although they were not found for 24 hours. Corinne’s mother believed it had been a miracle.
And Corrine herself told her four children when pressed to explain the meaning of that extraordinary event that God had spared her so that they could be born. Even if we don’t have such dramatic stories, it is nonetheless a miracle that we are here.
But do we take full advantage of being here? We do only if we are in a full and free and loving relationship with our heavenly Father. While we are here we are meant to live in an intimate relationship with God. Without that relationship we have a huge hole in our lives. As St. Augustine so famously said of the Lord, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.”1 Our deepest purpose and our deepest needs, which after all go together, find their fulfillment only in a personal relationship with God.
Finding our peace in God by having a personal relationship with him may sound easy but it is not. Why? Because we let things get in the way. Our passage is addressed to Jews who were living in Babylonian exile. The promise of God through the prophet was that he was about to end their judgment and cause them to go home. But the promise was about more than returning to the land; it was about returning to the relationship with God that he had always intended for them to have. Only in that relationship could they have real life; only in that relationship could they live fully.
So when they heard the words, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” what could have gotten in the way? What could have stopped them from accepting this gracious invitation? I mean, if you were dying of thirst and water was made available, nothing would stop you from taking it, would it? But some among the Jews in exile were stopped and so are some of us. The same things that stopped some of them stop some of us, I fear.
They got distracted – and we get distracted – by wrong attitudes and misdirected priorities. We can be too earthbound in our thinking and in our living. We get too attached to the physical and the mundane. “You that have no money, come, buy and eat!” the Lord said, but He also said, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
Some people in Babylon were making a good living and didn’t want to leave to go take a chance in the Promised Land.2 Perhaps others were discouraged by their lack of a living; that was surely the case of those left behind in Judah. The invitation to life is for those who have and for those who don’t have. But both groups can be distracted: those who have by what they have and those who don’t have by what they wish they had. The “haves” are distracted by the illusion that their needs can be met by their stuff; the “have-nots” are distracted by the illusion that more stuff would meet their needs. Such living denies the reality of the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ, because such living refuses to live in light of the fact that Jesus died and rose so that we might become children of God and citizens of heaven.
It’s all about perspective and mindset. John Stott told the story of a young man who found a five-dollar bill on the street and who “from that time on never lifted his eyes when walking. In the course of years he accumulated 29,516 buttons, 54,172 pins, 12 cents, a bent back and a miserly disposition.” But think what he lost. He couldn’t see the radiance of the sunlight, and sheen of the stars, the smile on the face of his friends, or the blossoms of springtime, for his eyes were in the gutter. There are too many Christians like that. We have important duties on earth, but we must never allow them to preoccupy us in such a way that we forget who we are or where we are going.3
But we do let things get in the way. Material things are not necessarily bad things; indeed, many of them are absolutely necessary – see how long you’ll make it without food, water, shelter, clothing, and medical care. But if we are always looking down and never looking up we’ll miss the best things, the things that God really intends for us. It can happen to anybody.
But it doesn’t have to happen to anybody because this invitation to life is for everybody. After reminding the Jews in exile of his covenant with David, a covenant that had been popularly interpreted as a covenant exclusively with Israel, the Lord told them that he had made David “a witness to the peoples,” and that the Jews would “call nations that you do not know, and nations that you do not know shall run to you, because of the LORD your God.” (
That’s good news but even such good news can be a stumbling block for some. That’s because we sometimes want to limit the guest list to those who are like us or to those who we think deserve to be invited. We forget that God made and loves all people whether they are like us or not and that if the invitation was limited to the deserving we wouldn’t be invited, either. But to live real life, to live life in God’s presence, is to live with God’s blessings and with God’s people.
Paul Hanson has said, “The most precious gift of all, the gift of life in God’s presence, is free. All that can exclude you is your insisting that there are places you would rather be. Why would anyone ever decide thus? Because you want to determine the menu. You want to be in control of the company you keep.”4
Our menu is so limiting: our stuff, our way, our viewpoints, our opinions, our standards. Our company is so limiting: our kind, our race, our religion, our class. But God’s menu is limitless: real life, eternal life, abundant life; life lived in the kingdom as a child of God, life filled with his love and his grace and his wisdom. God’s company is so limitless: people who believe, people who trust, people who are red and yellow, black and white, who are rich and poor, who are open and accepting of one another, who are seeking together and struggling together and finding together.
We have to learn to see life God’s way, though, and that requires repentance. We have to be moving toward seeing things in God’s way, and that’s a challenge. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (
The truth is that by living in relationship with Him, by accepting the real life that he gives for free, and by entering into the community of the saints, we find our true way of being.
Can we learn to close our eyes to those things and to those attitudes that blind us? Helen Keller said, “I can see, and that is why I can be so happy, in what you call the dark, but which to me is golden. I can see a God-made world, not a man-made world.”
We choose life as we choose to see the God-made world rather than the world that we have made. Jesus died and rose again so that we might see that world and so that we might live in that world.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see and to live life in God’s way? You can. You really can.
Michael L. Ruffin is Pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, GA.
1. The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. Rex Warner (New York: Mentor, 1963), p. 17.
2. Cf. Page H. Kelley, “Isaiah,” Broadman Bible Commentary (Nashville: Broadman, 1971), p. 347.
3. John Stott, “The Biblical Basis for Declaring God’s Glory,” in D.M. Howard, ed., Declare His Glory among the Nations (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1977), p. 90, cited by Alister McGrath, “Loving God with Heart and Mind,” For All the Saints: Evangelical Theology and Christian Spirituality, Timothy George and Alister McGrath, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), p. 25.
4. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: John Knox, 1995), pp. 177-178