Lost in the Woods

An Analogy of How Belief Drives Our Life

Suppose you are lost in the woods. After a restless night, you get up and head South, hoping that by walking in a straight line you will eventually cross a road that will lead you back to civilization. By mid-afternoon, you are dirty, sweaty, exhausted, and feeling scared and hopeless. Completely disillusioned, you fall down on the ground and begin yelling at the surrounding void in despair. Suddenly, you hear someone call out that they hear you, and a moment later a smartly dressed park ranger sticks his head through the tall grass. He immediately comes to your aid, calming you down and offering you fresh water to drink. Once you are feeling safe again, he assures you that there is a small town less than a quarter of a mile away, to the West. And he will take you there. Your despair washes away, your courage returns and you get up and go with him to the small town. You don't even notice that you are too tired to walk there.

Now suppose instead, that when this park ranger shows up, you are only partially relieved. After you hear that there is a town only a short distance to the West, and that if you had kept walking South you would have ended up in a swamp that was over a mile wide, you feel even more despair. All you can think of is how close you came to missing your chance for rescue and how you might have spent many more days trying to find your way around some swamp. The fear you had of dying out in the wilderness finds validation in what he says, and floods your mind with images of disaster. What little strength you had left now gives out. Instead of relief, you feel darkness closing in. You can barely hear the park ranger as he tries to reason with you.

In each case, the circumstances are identical. Nothing has changed. The only difference is in what you perceive and how you view the situation described to you by the ranger. How you go about making sense of the data makes all the difference in the world. In the first instance, your belief that you had been given a path to life was sufficient in and of itself to motivate you to make a change in your course and go West instead of South. No additional pep talk was needed, The ranger did not have to try to motivate you to go somewhere you had never been. Your internal conviction of hope was enough to propel you forward.

In the second case, however, the ranger is completely unable to talk you out of your despair. A map won't help. His sincerity won't help. His rational explanations mean nothing. All you can see is your hopelessness and how close you came to death. The poor ranger may have to drag you out of there kicking and screaming before he is done. Why? The only difference is in how you have tried to make sense of your situation. Once you concluded that you were being stalked by Death, your body and your emotions followed accordingly. What you believed came out in your responses and "choices."

Now if we try to stand back from this experience and describe it, what terms might we use? I don't think anyone would say it was a matter of whether or not you "obeyed" the park ranger. Obedience or disobedience was never an issue. In the first instance, you wanted to go West as fast as you could, with the help of the ranger. You were propelled by hope, by faith in what the ranger had said, and by what was in your own best interest. To say you were obedient would actually distort the story. In the second scenario, you collapsed in a heap, not because you wanted to have things your own way, but because you could not see any other way to view where you were. Again, to use the word disobedience would only distort what happened. It would be foolish to say, "Your main problem was you did not do what the park ranger said," because the real problem was you were too overwhelmed by your own perceptions to make sense of the ranger's statements. You would have much preferred if the ranger had commiserated with you about your situation or tele-ported you to the town where you could cry yourself to sleep in a nice comfortable place. It was not that you refused to hear or do what he said. You were no longer able to.

That's the basic problem with the argument of those who say, “you only need to be obedient.” It never bothers to address the issue of “Why?” To say you had a choice to make also begs the question. Our will is never “free” to choose between whatever alternatives are out there. Our will is encumbered by our own beliefs, our history, our perceptions of who we are, how we matter, how life works for us, and who God is, or how He might or might not be involved in my life. All those things not only place limits on how or what we might choose, they often override our will entirely, and cause us to act out of whatever is embedded in our body. We call that reacting to a situation instead of carefully responding. We do not choose to react, we just do. And even when we try to respond, we can only do so out of our best understanding, which may in fact be terribly flawed.

To take this one step farther, obedience to a distorted perception of what we need to do is of no help at all. That will only make things worse. The question is not whether we will try hard to do something. The question is what beliefs we are operating out of. And we may need a lot of help from God to change what we see and believe before we have His heart in a matter and are able to move forward in a way that brings life.

Trying to intervene in our life at the point of how we “ought” to respond ("obedience") is far too late in the process. We need to learn how to invite God's light into the dark places of our mind where we form distorted perceptions of life, so that as our mind is renewed, we can live better by nature.

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