I awoke this morning with a vague sense of futility. I’ve got a full schedule today, more on my mind than my energy can handle. What does it matter? So what if I work hard, get the urgent things off my plate, talk to a few more people about their messed up lives? I’ll go to bed tonight with more work ahead of me, more urgent things to take care of, more troubled people who want to talk tomorrow.
Life sometimes seems like nothing more than work, pressure, and problems that never really go away. Nothing changes, not really. What does anything I do matter? What does anything matter?
In the thick gray cloud that enveloped me this morning, I prayed. It seemed the right thing to do. A transcript of the words that ran through my head would look pretty close to this:
Why do I have to feel this way? I hate it. Am I mishandling my life that badly? Am I that far from you, God? I know I’ll feel better after coffee, but God, I want to make it because of you. Why won’t you meet me? Why can’t you make yourself known to me in a way that gets me going more than caffeine?
I lay there for half an hour. I thought of Scripture. Okay, that’s where God speaks. Let me listen for his voice in his Word. I sent my mind as best I could through each book of the Old Testament, then the New, searching for a phrase, a sentence, a story, a thought that would prime the pump. Up to Ezekiel, nothing. Then I remembered a phrase from one of Ezekiel’s later chapters: “Where the river flows, everything will live.”
I could feel something move within me, a passion rising from hidden depths. Then the cloud grew suddenly darker. The flow stopped.
I got up. I looked at the clock. It was 4:30 am. Rachael was still sleeping. I was careful not to wake her, though I longed for her company. I stumbled toward the bathroom in the dark.
A few minutes later, I was back in our bedroom, standing by our bed wondering whether to crawl back in or to get dressed and get going. Coffee, the Denver Post, a Bible passage, then phone calls, correspondence, work. I’ll be fine.
I felt entitled to another hour of warmth beneath the covers, but afraid at the same time. Would my mind just spin? Would I sink to those familiar depths of desperate frustration? Or would I meet God? I was afraid I wouldn’t, but I knew I wouldn’t if I grabbed coffee and raced headlong into my day. I’d make it, but not because of God.
So I climbed in, lay face up on the pillow, and stared. Sometimes I kneel when I pray. More often I stare at the ceiling. My conversation with God resumed. It was still one way:
God, I can’t stand it. So many distractions, so much to do, so little energy. And immobilizing confusion. That gray-haired old man I saw yesterday as I was driving, the slouched-over guy—must have been past eighty—with a white cane feeling his way across the street. God, he reminded me of my father in his last year. What’s it all about? I hate it when I hear a pro football player say it’s all about winning. That old man can’t win. Does he know you? And if he does, what difference are you making in his life?
He’s still blind, he’s still old, he’s probably alone. Maybe his wife is dead, his kids far away. Does he have anything to look forward to except heaven? Is that supposed to be enough? And what if he doesn’t know you? Are you going to let him live a few more miserable years and then send him to hell?
I closed my eyes. I wanted to sleep, to make it all go away. But my mind wouldn’t shut down. I remembered an article I had forgotten is due tomorrow. And those radio spots. Plus, I’m scheduled for live television today. Well, I can do it. Get some coffee in me, read the funnies, sports, and editorials in that order, then push ahead. I can pull it off.
Is that what I’m doing? Just pulling it off? I feel no passion. Only pressure. What am I after? Survival? Happiness? Fulfillment? Joy? Everything I want seems out of reach. If I tell anybody what I’m feeling, they’ll say they’re concerned about me. Or offer advice. I want to cry, but the well is dry. There’s no water, even for tears. I prayed again, this time in agony:
God, are you there? What can I count on you for? What do I want? What do you provide? It all seems so futile. So pointless. And telling you isn’t helping. It isn’t making any difference at all.
Peter Kreeft calls what I was going through the Ecclesiastes Experience. One big, colossal “So what?”
It wasn’t the first time. The feelings are familiar. The experience recurs like a bad headache. I’ve entered the Ecclesiastes Experience often, and fully enough to know what anhedonia means— no pleasure anywhere, no relief available, no meaning to anything, nothing that’s enjoyable.
But I’m realizing something. For me, the Ecclesiastes Experience has become the beginning of real prayer, the kind that erupts out of dependence. I felt hope this morning. The sun peeked out from behind the clouds.
Then just as quickly, it disappeared. The rains came. In torrents. Still la ying in bed, I thought again of all I have to do, how disorganized my life feels. Old worries flooded my mind. New worries felt like a tidal wave. I panicked. Where’s the peace I’ve been promised?
I sat up in bed, angry, desperate. “I hate my life!” I silently shouted. Then I fell back on my pillow and writhed and moaned.
Was I trying to wake my wife? Was I hoping she wouldn’t hear me? Who knows? I’ve begged God a thousand times to search my heart, to show me my wicked ways so I could repent and move on to joy and adventure and passion. It’s happened, but never on cue and never as a long-term adjustment.
Now the clock said 5:35 am. I felt limp, detached from everything. Hopeful about nothing. But, and this caught my attention, I felt more frustrated than numb. I was getting in touch with what C. S. Lewis described as those longings that nothing in the world can satisfy. Maybe I really was made for what is not now available. That felt strangely hopeful, transcendent.
The Job Experience was working. (That’s another Kreeft phrase.) Facing how impossible life is, how maddening it can be, how unfair and unmanageable, how completely empty—it all has a way of plunging me beneath everything that hurts to the sheer delight of desire. Not desire for good things available now, things that in the Job Experience seem almost trivial, things like romance, excitement, a sense of aliveness, a claiming of one’s own voice. But desire for something and for someone that cannot be easily named.
I still want. I still yearn. For what? The good life of happiness and fulfillment is out of reach. Relief of pain may not come. My Job Experience showed me again, this time more convincingly, that life here is fundamentally frustrating. But I still want! Desire won’t quit!
Still laying in bed, I looked again, this time not into the darkness, but beyond it. What do I want?
The easy answer, I realized, was God. But I was in no mood for easy answers. Of course, I want God. My theology tells me that. But why? Why do I want him? He’s not going to restore sight to that blind man. He didn’t cure Mother’s Alzheimer’s and let her enjoy happiness with Dad in their final years. He may or may not keep my cancer from returning. He may see to it that my three beautiful grandchildren develop into healthy, good young people—or He may not. He doesn’t give me the guarantees I want.
But I want him. I could feel it in my bones this morning. I yearn to know the Father’s love. I long to live the Son’s life. I desire to move to the Spirit’s rhythm when a car cuts me off, when money runs short, when I feel tension toward a friend.
I want to dance with the Trinity. I want him. I want them. I want the blessings of life, yes! But without the presence of God, without knowing his presence, all the blessings I can imagine mean nothing.
It was at this point that I threw off the covers and got up. It was a few minutes past 6:00. I showered, dressed, and began my day. The river was flowing, and there was life. I had begun in the Ecclesiastes Experience, moved through the Job Experience, and was now entering the dawn of the Song of Solomon Experience (the final in Kreeft’s trilogy of phrases). Deep in my soul, in the region where fact becomes truth, I knew that life was knowing God, and that I knew him, and, more importantly, that he knew me. The sun appeared! I felt its warmth.
I’ve been a Christian for more than fifty years. I began my journey, even from the point of conception six decades ago, foolishly attached to anything but God, convinced that something more or less or other than God would satisfy my heart. I was foolish, deceived, culpably self-obsessed.
At age 8, I received forgiveness from Christ, the only source. That’s when my journey shifted directions, and a new desire began leading me toward God. Since then, I’ve been faithfully led into the experience of futility, slowly, very slowly, to let me see how empty life is without God as the point.
Detachment is a long process. It takes years, a lifetime of years, and an ocean of tears. The latest cycle happened this morning when I awoke with a vague sense of futility.
But that’s not a bad thing. It’s good. It’s when prayer begins. As the prodigal discovered, repentance begins in the belly, with the exquisitely painful awareness of a hollow space in one’s soul that nothing in this world can fill.
Honesty. Presentation of myself exactly as I am before God. No pious pretense, no glossy varnish. Sheer transparency before God. A naked soul. Ugly. Demanding. Selfish. Longing. Empty. That gets the Ecclesiastes Experience underway. And it’s a gift, a severe mercy.
Then attention to my interior world where God is rumored to live. What else is stirring? An awareness of God? Confidence in what he will do? Or a bewildering, terrifying, maddening sense of his absence? It could be either. But at times it will be the latter. At those times my soul resonates with Job. Problems everywhere. No solutions. The fervent wish that I had never been born.
In the Job Experience comes the discovery of desire. And sin—not sins—Sin! I’ve been demanding that God adjust his plans to my wants, that he honor my wisdom as his guide. And I’ve been wanting whatever creates an experience of joy, now and on demand. Like a spoiled child at Christmas, I’ve been indifferent to my Father’s smile, caught up instead with how high he’s stacked the gifts beneath the tree, gifts that I can open and play with now.
Purging follows. Brokenness. Repentance. God, forgive me. Like the Jews in Ezekiel’s day, I’ve entered the temple and walked right past your Glory to bow before Asherah. I’ve not been wanting you in the morning darkness. I’ve been looking for the light switch so I can see where I’m going. God, let me cling to you in the night, till the sun rises.
Then comes the music. Our lover sings the Song of Songs, invites me to the celestial dance floor, and I begin to move in rhythm with the Spirit, following the Son, moving toward the Father. I approach God with no greater desire than to dance in his presence.
I call it the PAPA prayer:
Present yourself as you are.
Attend to whatever is deepest within you, whether you are experiencing God’s absence or his presence.
Purge yourself, in brokenness and repentance, of the idolatry that becomes clear; then listen for the strains of divine music as you.
Approach God, valuing him as your supreme treasure.
Morning coffee gets me into the day. Morning prayer moves me toward God. Prayer is better.