If your life was a river, what would it look like? For one thing, our lives are an endless flow of good and bad circumstances. Sometimes life is great, and sometimes it is very hard. No one escapes the flow of life’s river. We might think if we are rich enough or powerful enough, we can control the river and avoid the undesirable things in life. But, no one does. Even the most powerful do not escape pain and sorrow.
The faithful turn to God to control the river. We reason that no human being can control the good and bad of life, but God can. If we obey and have faith, God will make the river good and deliver us from the bad.
In Jesus’s day, people believed God would make the river to their liking. The Romans had come in like a flood and threatened to take away their freedom, prosperity, and dignity. They thought Yahweh would rise like He had in the past and turn the river from bad to good, making it like it was before, a river of blessing rather than curses.
Though we live millennia later, our hearts are still the same. We want God to deliver us from the “Romans” in our lives and give us the things we desire. After all, God is the God who makes dreams come true. As the scriptures say, “Delight yourself also in the Lord, And He shall give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)”
We have all seen God turn our lives from lacking to abundance. He is quite capable of showing He is Lord of the river. He calms the river when it is turbulent just as Jesus calmed a terrible storm on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41). All it took was a word. Who among us has not spoken words of faith and watched the hand of God?
We regard the river as something that needs changing through faith. Yet, what if there is another way of seeing the river and its purpose? Perhaps it is an endless flow of bad and good for a reason. Is it possible that God has a higher purpose and use for faith than making the river to our liking? In this article, we will examine these questions, and I pray that we will see that the river of our lives, with all its bad and good, is exactly the way it supposed to be.
One of the great revelations of the Christian life is that God is not taking us where we suppose He is. When we begin our journey with God, our eyes are on finite things, and we define our destiny in terms of the temporal. When we ponder God’s wonderful plan for our lives, we focus on seen things. We believe the Lord will make us somebody or give us something. We set our hearts on finite things, because that is how we define the river, and we conclude God’s mind is the same as ours. However, when we come to understand God’s way, we recognize that His plan is not to make the river to our liking. Instead, He invites us to live above the river, in the infinite, together with Him. The river of life’s bad and good is taking us some place higher. It takes us to transcendence, the life lived above the bad and good of life below.
Paul sought to teach God’s beloved how to be spiritual people. This passage sounds very heavenly, but what does it mean? We might assume the apostle was commanding us to think about God all the time. Bible verses should be running through our heads and praise through our hearts, and when that is not happening, we should be praying that the river below would be good. This sounds like a worthwhile endeavor. Yet, few accomplish it. Those who set out on this path often get lost in self-righteousness along the way. Doing should not be our first aim in being spiritual. It should be seeing. Those who live above see differently. Their life is not merely an endless flow of bad and good. It is Christ. To gain Him is the purpose of the river with all its good and bad. They meet Him in every twist and turn, in the calm and in the turbulent. He is the river as He is the life.
Consider Paul’s story and the story of many believers in that day. For them the river was not good by our standards. In fact, it seemed to lead them to continual loss.
Paul had a hard life. At times it was unbearable. (II Corinthians 11:22-33) More than once, the apostle asked God to take his troubles away (II Corinthians 12:7-10). God said “no!” If we define life only by finite things, it is difficult to understand why God wouldn’t answer His servant’s request. How could He let those whom He loved suffer so much?
This question stirs conflict between believers and non-believers. Atheists point to how bad the river can be. How could a loving God allow natural disasters or permit humanity’s inhumanities? Christians point to how good the river can be, life’s blessings, and the world’s beauty. People who visit Thorncrown Chapel often remark “How could anyone see this and not acknowledge God?” Yet, often people don’t believe, because they have seen great ugliness in the world.
I doubt Paul would have taken part in such an argument. He experienced how bad the river can be, but no one was more certain of the love of Christ. If a person spends more time in the bad part of the river than the good, how can this be? The answer is transcendence. Paul had something higher than the good and the bad of life. In other words, life did not have to be good for him to see the goodness of God.
The apostle did not regard life merely as an endless flow of good and bad, and his struggle was not to turn the bad to good. He had a higher definition of life and of the river, itself, not based in the finite but in the infinite. To Paul, Christ was life. He lived above in what he called the heavenlies (Ephesians 2:4-9), a realm higher than the finite. Togetherness with Christ is what made his life full, and he knew that union in both the bad and the good.
The world defines life according to life’s good and bad. When things go well, we love to say, “Life is good!” Yet, when circumstances turn against us, we use more colorful metaphors to express our opinion of life. We pit the Devil against God in this matter. The Devil, in our mind, not only wants us to do bad, but he wants life to be bad. He is always out to steal our blessing. God, on the other hand, wants us to be good, and he wants our lives to be filled with good things.
Again, I think Paul would have disagreed with this worldview. He might even call it the view from below. Paul saw something much higher and far more glorious. To him life was an endless flow of God’s gift, and His gift is found not just in the finite but in the infinite. God’s gift is Himself.
God gives Himself in the good. The Lord gives us many blessings, but if all we see is the blessing, we miss the point. If we are not careful, the Lord can become someone we use to get what we want. In Luke 12:11-19 Jesus healed ten lepers, but only one, a Samaritan, returned to give thanks. The other nine got what they wanted and were on their way. The Samaritan met with the Lord in the midst of the blessing. He didn’t just get what he wanted, he got God in a deeper way.
Picture yourself at a great banqueting table. Your host has prepared a magnificent feast for you. Yet, are you there only for the food or for the host? In giving the feast, the master of the house has given himself to you. Likewise, every good thing God gives us is about togetherness. The finite things God gives us are a great blessing, but the greatest joy is to meet the Lord amid our blessings, for it is there He reveals Himself to us. God understands our hearts, and He knows unseen things fill our lives in greater ways than seen things. Look for them in every good thing God gives you.
God is always giving Himself to us, not only when life is at its best, but also when it is at its worst. In fact, when the river is bad, we are often in the best place to see the goodness of God.
Paul said he boasted and took pleasure in the times when the river was against him. The apostle did not seek difficulties, but he knew in the midst of the bad things he would meet God. When the river grew turbulent and beyond his control, Paul knew God had come to give Himself to His beloved. He might suffer the loss of the finite, but such loss was only a door to the infinite.
The Lord purposefully kept Paul weak, because in lowliness, the apostle could comprehend the heights of God’s glory. For example, Paul wrote some of his most triumphant epistles while in prison. Prison, especially in that day, was not a place of victory, but a place of humiliation and defeat. Yet, in a place of powerlessness, the apostle wrote about the being seated with Christ above all rule and authority. From here he wrote of the preeminence of Christ in a world that could only see the preeminence of Caesar. And from this dreary place he wrote of humility as the way that leads to exaltation not destruction.
If we look carefully, we can notice similar examples in our own lives. Suppose God takes you to a lonely place, a place where you are of no account, a nobody. You see others gaining attention and acclaim, but you hear only silence or the voice of rejection. The natural mind says God loves those in the limelight, and you are rejected, far from God. Or are you? The Lord has always taken his chosen to barren places, but this is not disfavor. God knows when the finite blessing is missing, we are in the perfect place to behold the infinite. Barrenness is an invitation to live above. It is God’s welcome mat. It calls us to come live above together with Him. When we have no worldly measures of worth, God’s purpose is to give us an infinite measure of who we are, and that measure is Christ.
It is in the place of no blessing we comprehend how blessed we are because it is there that we often see the infinite most clearly. It is in lowliness we gain the view from above. This compels us to look at the river much differently. Worldly understanding tells us those who spend their lives in the good part of the river are privileged or favored. Yet, in the kingdom of God we gain an entirely different perspective. Consider James’s words to those wealthy in finite things.
This is an astonishingly different paradigm, one we also saw in Paul. It re-frames weakness, lacking, and defeat not as curses but as the places we meet God and behold the infinite. Those whom the world calls losers are in a better position to behold infinite victory, a victory not wrapped up in who we are, what we have, or what we have done. It is a triumph that is Christ alone. All these things we count as bad are merely tools in God’s hand to lead us to the Infinite, to God, Himself. Those who live in this heavenly mindset do not see bad and good as much as they see God. He is in both, forever giving Himself to us. He is all in all.
Life’s journey is not from bad to good, and our purpose is not to control the river below. The Lord’s vision for us is not to give us the lives we want. In fact, He bids us to let go of the lives we want and all our efforts to control the river. He calls us to leave behind our home below for the life above together with Him. In doing so, we come to realize that the good and evil paradigm was only an illusion. Christ is all in all. He is the river, and He is the life.
Our Own Good and Evil
Our lives are not only an endless flow of good and bad, we, ourselves, are both good and evil. Hopefully, the river of our lives is filled with more good deeds than bad. Yet, even as no one escapes troubled times, no one escapes sin. We are all a mix of good and evil.
Traditionally, we define revival as turning from evil to good and thus we return to God. If we turn from our wicked ways, God will heal the land (II Chronicles 7:14). I must admit I have been a cheerleader in this endeavor many times in my life. I have been a voice calling for people to make less room for the world and more room for God in their lives.
Yet, after years of trying to make the journey from evil to good, I saw it is a futile endeavor, and it is not a road that leads to God. Even if we become less evil, we often become more self-righteous at the same time. We believe our good defines us and how much God is in our lives. Likewise, we think our neighbor’s evil defines them and how close they are to God. Consequently, in our efforts to do good, we define ourselves as close to God and blessed and others as far from God and cursed.
Our efforts to be good cannot lead to union with Christ. At best we will end up with a God who visits us when all is good, but we will never know the joy of abiding. We will always have to do something more to make God be who we want Him to be. This path leads not only to separateness between us and God but also between us and or neighbor. We view others as unworthy when their efforts don’t match ours. We see only "us and them" rather than the Lord who is all in all.
This is the mind of the ego or flesh, not the Spirit. Ultimately, revival is a revelation, not an accomplishment. God calls us not to turn the river of our life from evil to good but to live above our own good and evil in togetherness with Him.
To live below is to live in the realm of self. Here we believe our good and evil defines who we are and who God is in our lives. Our objective is to make the river good, so God will want to fill it. We always need more, more prayer, more devotion, even more desperation for God. We must become like God before the Lord will draw near.
If we live in the river below, we make promises to the Lord. We repent and surrender time and time again. With each new endeavor, we conclude we have finally become what God wants us to be. Yet, if we are honest, we realize God doesn’t seem interested in helping us be perfect. Our cries for holiness appear to fall on deaf ears, and our weakness is waiting for us right outside the church doors. We don’t understand that if God gave us our definition of righteousness, He would be trapping us in self-righteousness!
Einstein is thought to have said, “The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result (1).” In our walk with God we often hold fast to our insanity for a very long time. We think our blindness is His will! When we seek to be good to have God, we wander in the wilderness, and our trek can be very prolonged. Our wandering ends when come to the end of self, and Christ becomes our measure.
Human weakness has a purpose. Its end should not be shame but the glory of God. At the end of our own righteousness we are in the perfect place to gain Christ as our righteousness. The Lord will meet us in the midst of our weakness. Our imperfections are our tutor. Only they do not lead us to human perfection but to Christ. God’s goal is union, and he uses our shortcomings to lead us home.
We must be careful to hear the message of God’s Law. If we are self-focused, we believe its message is that we must control the river below and make it good. If we can control the river, we define who we are and who God is in our lives. Yet, the Spirit reveals the Law’s true message. It is the one Paul heard long ago. It is a tutor that leads to Christ. Its end is transcendence, to live above our own good and evil together with Christ. And it is our togetherness with Christ that defines who we are and who God is in our lives. His infinite deeds define us. To live in the power of what He has done is transcendence, it is life above together with Him.
The Old Covenant left humanity in the river below, trapped in good and evil. Its command was to be good, and its promise was a good life. We cannot live with God in such a paradigm. He will always be the God behind the veil to those of this mindset. Christ came to deliver us from the realm of good and evil. The highest purpose of His death and resurrection was not to control the river below, but to raise us above it together with Christ. The purpose of the resurrection is to give us the infinite as the measure of who we are and of the quality of our lives. It is God’s power to give us Himself.
In this framework, obedience finds a new perspective. It is not just obeying a commandment written on stone (that is to make the river good), it is to come to Christ, leaving our good and evil paradigm behind. This is transcendence, life above the river below.
(1) Actually, there is little evidence Einstein said this, but still, it is a wise observation.