Does God Deceive Us?
This is an essay I wrote several years ago that stirred up quite a controversy when I submitted it for publication to a magazine. They published it, but asked a priest to write a rebuttal to it. Please note that I use God and the masculine pronoun throughout without intending for it to be taken literally. - GSS
Does God Deceive Us?
Last December, I left my dock at daybreak and boated eastward toward the lower Laguna Madre -- a clear, shallow bay on the Texas Gulf Coast. It was cold even for a South Texas winter day, so I wore my fleece, neoprene waders, and fingerless wool gloves. While I shuddered uncontrollably, I never considered turning back, because for many years I had dreamed of catching a record speckled trout on my fly rod. As I skimmed over the water, heading into the rising sun, I thought, This could be the day.
After all, many dreams had indicated -- if taken literally -- that this dream might eventually come true. In one, I was fishing and I spotted a great fish feeding. Excitedly, I cast my fly to it, and the huge trout rose to the surface and inhaled it without hesitation. Immediately I thought, There is simply no way to land this fish. But then, the huge fish leapt 50 feet into the air and landed on the ground, right at my feet.
The dream, however, did not come true that day. Hours after leaving the dock, I was wading a mile from my anchored boat in soft mud and a foot of water. The sun had risen and the day had turned surprisingly warm. Exhausted and unable to shed some of my clothing, I turned around to make the arduous trek back to the boat. As I considered the toll that the dream of catching the big fish had taken, I also realized that it had played a small but significant role in luring me onward in my decision to leave Virginia after 25 years and to relocate to my "home waters" of South Texas. This decision had been one of the most difficult steps I’d ever taken, for it had involved becoming separated from many of my friends and my son, and redefining myself as a fishing guide and innkeeper in the remote, natural setting of my childhood. As I reflected on the dreams and spiritual experiences that had pushed me toward this decision, an idea suddenly came to maturity after years of germination. I laughed, and knew that it was one of the most important realizations of my lifetime. It had nothing to do with fishing per se. It had to do with how God gets us to do the work we need to do.
My thoughts went back to 1970, when I first met my spiritual mentor, Hugh Lynn Cayce. He sauntered up to me in the meadow below the A.R.E.'s camp's dining hall and casually introduced himself like he was just another camper. Even though we'd never actually met before, I knew who he was. Further, I had encountered him in a dream several months before.
In the dream, Hugh Lynn asked me if I'd like to take part in a passion play. Having only a vague notion of what that would mean, I nonetheless felt honored that he would choose me, and so I gladly consented. Moments later, I was told to lie down on a cross. Two men approached, and prepared to nail me to it -- with real nails. Then I awoke.
As I made my way back to the boat, I reflected on this dream, and others like it, that seemed to indicate that I would be called upon to do important spiritual work in this lifetime. In one dream, I arrived at the A.R.E. and filled the only empty chair of twelve that were lined up in front of Headquarters. And in another, I was told that I would write a book, titled The Second Revelation. Well, as you might imagine, I felt pretty special as a result of such dreams; and they accounted, in part, for my decision to move to Virginia Beach and to go to work for the A.R.E. after graduating from college. I went on to write two books, which taken together could conceivably have been titled The Second Revelation. My agent and my editor predicted that the books would become bestsellers, and the major New York publishers fought over the rights to publish the books. But in spite of all the fanfare, the books did not become bestsellers. The books may have been good, and they may have been what God wanted me to do. It was true that the books brought me a lot of advance money, but only because my publishers also believed in something that never came true. They must have felt deceived by their own expectations, but they never spoke to me about their feelings. Regardless, it was embarrassing and painful to become a failure in their eyes, and to experience the "real nails" of my chosen path.
As the sun bore down, I once again felt tricked by the dream of catching the big one. I skirted the yucca-covered shoreline of Rattlesnake Island, and wondered if perhaps the snakes were stirring from their wintry slumber. I felt some relief when I finally spotted my boat anchored off the south shore, and knew that I'd be there soon enough.
Meanwhile, I considered how the disciples must have felt when Jesus chose them. Here was this new teacher, rumored to be much more than an ordinary Rabbi, who was choosing them to be his followers. We can imagine how special they must have felt. But Jesus must have known that he was choosing men who would conceivably lose everything, even their lives, in the course of following him. We can also assume that he did not emphasize this part of the discipleship agreement at first -- the "real nails" part. Instead, he kindled in them a great dream that would sustain them in the hard years to come. And then, after shattering this first dream by dying as he did, he awakened in them another by promising that he would return to finish the work that he'd started. With this single assertion, Jesus instilled more expectancy and hope than the world had ever known.
When Jesus did not return immediately, and his followers started to worry, Paul brilliantly focused on the redemptive power of the risen Christ as a sufficient fulfillment of Christ's mission in order to quell their understandable misgivings. However, others who assume that the Master meant to be taken literally, have pointed out that Jesus has never made good on his promise to return. Some explain this by saying that Jesus, being a man, was simply susceptible to occasional error. Others, who believe that the tangible fulfillment of this promise is crucial, say that the time has not yet come for his return. And still others have regarded the return of Christ as an interior reality. My own work, I am With You Always , is arguably a collection of such interior "second comings."
But no one that I know has ever accused Jesus of deceiving us.
There have many promises and prophecies, since the time of Christ, that have convinced countless believers that dramatic change was indeed imminent. For instance, as we approached the new millennium, I know that many of us expected that the close of the century would bring changes, the likes of which the world had never seen. At least that is many people came to believe from Biblically derived prophecies, or from the Biblically inspired prophecies of such from one of the best-known seers of our times -- Edgar Cayce. Steeped in a life of devotion to his Master, and informed by prodigious Biblical study, the Sleeping Prophet described scenarios, similar to those found in The Revelation, that would unfold from 1958 through 1998 that made spiritual sense, and which provided a motivational basis for innumerable seekers during the last half of this century. Other modern seers concurred with Cayce's assessments, and offered their own flourishes to his compelling millennial vision.
But, by and large these changes have not yet come to pass.
Some say that Cayce was simply not perfect, even though he was a great visionary and modern disciple of Christ, and some say that Cayce was not so much wrong as unable to anticipate the choices that we would make -- individually and collectively -- that would alter the outcome. Others contend that his timing was just a bit off, and so they push the dates forward into the next century. And still others say that many of the changes have occurred, only that they are internal and symbolic, rather than literal.
But no one I know has ever accused Cayce -- who was as devout as any man who has lived in modern times -- of intentionally deceiving us.
Indeed, in all of our thinking about the promises and prophecies that have not yet come true, the one obvious possibility that we have not considered is that God -- through our own dreams and through those who serve him best -- regularly and intentionally misleads us for our own good.
Indeed, there is good evidence that God -- or whatever you choose to call that power that sustains us and beckons us forever onward -- engages in at least two types of deception. First, He seems to makes promises that may be spiritually true -- and which inspire us to do the work we need to do -- but that never come to pass in this world. Second, He seems to withhold information that would undermine our willingness to to do the work we need to do.
In the latter case, let us consider the experiences of Henry Suso -- a 14th-century Christian saintly monk. Like most of the great Christian contemplatives, Suso -- once sealed by his vows to the Church -- ceased living in the world as an ordinary person. He was otherworldly and deeply spiritual, and was known as a healer of peerless integrity.
One day, while plunged deep in thought, Suso was rapt from his senses. He rose up out of his body and encountered a young man who told Suso that he done well in the "lower school," but that if Suso consented, he would be admitted to the "higher school." Not really knowing what that would mean, Suso nonetheless gladly consented, at which point he was ushered into the presence of the Master.
After Christ welcomed Suso to "the school of perfect self-abandonment," and explained something of its purpose, Suso returned to his body and happily waited for more instruction. A few weeks later, the young man appeared to him again in spirit, and proceeded to give Suso spurs and other apparel that only knights wore. When Suso protested that he had not earned his spurs in battle, the young man laughed and said,
"Have no fear! Thou shalt have battles enough!"
Then Christ appeared and told Suso that he should cease all of his rigorous, self-negating practices, because thereafter He, not Suso, would administer the tests. When Suso asked Christ what the tests would be, the Lord responded,
"It is better that thou know nothing, lest thou shouldst hesitate."
A few weeks later, Suso suffered the worst imaginable fate for a man wedded to the Church. A woman in the village accused him of fathering her illegitimate baby. For years thereafter, Suso struggled inwardly and outwardly with this test. And while the story is too long to tell here, suffice it to say that in the end, he surprised everyone by offering to support the child as though it had been his own. He passed his test, but would he have consented to it if he'd known what lay in store for him?
Christ said that even Suso may have hesitated.
Many of us have a way of assuming that dedicating ourselves to God's work will set everything to right in this world. Indeed, we are quick to latch onto rosy scenarios of our well-earned successes. Although we may give lip service to the idea of meaningful suffering, privately we might not expect it to apply to us. "He suffered for us," we might say. "We don't have to do what he did." The Master knew, however, that none of us can expect to be repaid for spiritual right action in the currency of this world. Indeed, he eventually made it clear to his disciples that they could not expect to be treated any better than He had been treated. Even so, Jesus believed that the "real nails" part was a tolerable price to pay for love.
But why didn't Jesus tell them everything ahead of time? Why did he wait until just before his own tragic death to tell then the "rest of the story"? Perhaps it was because he knew that his followers had finally grown to the point where they could hear the complete truth without giving up. And, in telling them not to expect an easy life thereafter, he effectively insulated them from hopelessness in a different way than before -- by "promising" them that they would face humiliation, mistreatment and suffering in the course of serving Him.
If it's still hard for you to accept the idea of God withholding the truth from us, then consider the example of a loving father who must decide whether to tell his child a devastating truth, or to deceive him in a way that will keep his dreams alive. More specifically, consider the example of a father who dearly loves his son who suffers from an incurable disease. As the father sits by his son’s bedside, feeling the anguish that only a parent can feel when his own child faces death, what does he say when his son asks,
Does the father say, "If you're still alive then"?
Of course not. He smiles and says, "Sure we can. And we'll do much more than that." And he may even place a fishing pole near his son's bed so that when the little boy awakens each morning, he will dream anew of the coming springtime.
It makes perfect sense to me that God, too, would mislead us to keep our dreams alive -- at least, as long as we cannot yet hear, nor benefit from the complete truth. But as we grow in spiritual stature, we can presumably handle more. For instance, when Bernadette of Lourdes asked the apparition of the Virgin Mary if she'd achieve happiness, she heard Mary reply, 'Not in this world, but the next." At that point in her life, Bernadette could hear the sobering truth without shying from her committed course, and she went on to dedicate her life to God. But like the father at his son's bedside, the Holy Mother did not tell Bernadette everything. She did not tell her that she would die of an excruciating illness while she was still only a young woman.
Love ever upholds the promise of our reunion, but may shield from us the price of the journey. This, I contend, is the highest form of love, and the most gracious form of deception.
When I reached the boat, the tide had receded so much that I had to push it two hundred yards to deeper water before I could start the motor and head back home. Straining against the weight of the boat, I recalled another "promise" that had come to me as I wrote and rewrote a little book, titled The Perfect Gift. Almost as soon as I began writing the Christmas story in late 1997, I began having visions in meditation of a Christmas tree ablaze with lights. My wife, too, began to have the same vivid experience. From this, we believed that the book would succeed, and so we never gave up hope, even when a major publisher almost bought it, but ultimately did not. We went on to publish the book ourselves, and she wrote a screenplay for it, believing that the story would, in time, win wide recognition. But while a new agent has high hopes for its eventual success, it still has not sold. We are thousands of dollars poorer, and I sometimes wonder if we were foolish to believe in it.
But then I realize that we tend to measure the fulfillment of our dreams by the wrong criteria. Like Peter, who wanted to erect a booth and sell tickets when he witnessed his Lord transfigured, we tend to evaluate the meaning of our lives in crude, numerical terms, and then find ourselves either acceptable or not on the basis of this assessment. To God, I am sure, it's not the number of books we sell that matters -- but the lives we touch.
This morning, a lady came to the door to check out from our bed and breakfast. She was aglow with praise for the little book that had moved her to tears the previous night before noticing who had written the book. She gladly purchased a copy as she left. When I forget to count how few books we've sold, such a response is reward enough for all the effort that we have made.
After working on this essay last night, I had a dream. In it, I again saw a Christmas tree ablaze with lights. I thought, Isn't Christmas over?
Apparently not. Nor is the great Dream that will sustain us to the end of our quest.
Now I am not so naive as to think that every time we feel tricked by fate, or by God, or by whatever seems to pull the rug out from under us, that God is up to his tricks again. No, in most cases I would agree that our sense of God's betrayal stems from holding onto the reasonable expectation that good things should happen when we do the right things. It makes sense, but that's not the way the world works, at least not at first. We usually have to wait a long while for some of our efforts to bear fruit But the human proclivity for expecting to be rewarded for doing the right thing does not account for all of the promises and phophecies that have been made -- and that remain, as yet, unfulfilled. No, there is something far greater than our own active imaginations operating to keep us expecting things that do not come true.
I submit to you that God, or Higher Power, will do whatever must be done to keep our deepest dreams alive. He may make promises whose time of fulfillment is both always and never -- always in heaven and in His heart, but perhaps never in this world. He may hide from us what would make us hesitate in our commitment to our path. He may work through well-meaning seers, and through our own dreams as well, to mislead us lovingly so that we will keep doing the spiritual work we must do. Above all, He knows that the great Dream of fulfillment must be kept alive to bring us all the way back home, and that vague, open-ended promises -- as well as insignificant omissions in what we are permitted to know -- can keep us moving in the direction of our greater destiny without falling prey to hopelessness or paralyzing grief.
In the end, if we feel betrayed when certain things do not come to pass, let us remember that even Jesus trembled in Gethsemane, and that Edgar Cayce reportedly doubted the value of his life work in the final days of his life. It is essentially human for us to hope that the great Dream will manifest in its fullness in this world, and in our own time. And, it is essentially human as well, to weep when it does not.
And after considering this sobering truth, let us celebrate the work that all great men and women of God have done in keeping alive the greatest dream that there has ever been -- the Dream of our eventual reunion with God.
And let us celebrate, as well, how far we have come by believing it.