Soul Thirst: Meeting Human Longing With Grace

“It makes a difference if I treat a nonbeliever as someone who is wrong rather than someone who is on the way but lost.”

On those unplanned detours in the mountains, sometimes I’ll turn a corner and find an extravagance of wildflowers that takes my breath away. Hiking in the splendidly named Oh Be Joyful Valley, my wife and I lay down in a field of alpine wildflowers with hummingbirds whistling around us in a setting as pristine as the Garden of Eden. Such sights give me another startling image of grace, for God has lavished this planet with beauty that shines forth whether noticed or not. Nature goes on, beauty goes on, whether or not anyone is there to observe it.

I thank God that during two decades in Colorado I’ve had opportunities to observe. Once while mountain biking I disturbed a herd of elk and came across a baby elk still glistening from birth, eyes large with fear, motionless as a rock. Another time, descending a canyon trail, I saw two bighorn sheep stand on their hind legs and head-butt each other with a sound that cracked like thunder. On another hike, early in the morning we surprised a flock of mountain bluebirds, who darted up and caught the sunlight with an explosion of color like silent fireworks. You only get these sights in the wilderness, and then you realize you may be the only persons on earth graced with that particular glimpse of God’s creation.

I agree with George MacDonald, who wrote, “One of my greatest difficulties in consenting to think of religion was that I thought I should have to give up my beautiful thoughts and my love for the things God has made. But I find that the happiness springing from all things not in themselves sinful is much increased by religion. God is the God of the Beautiful—Religion is the love of the Beautiful, and Heaven is the Home of the Beautiful—Nature is tenfold brighter in the Sun of Righteousness, and my love of Nature is more intense since I became a Christian.”

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It baffles me that places of natural beauty do not necessarily foster religious faith—how can Oregon and Washington have such low church attendance? Nature was one of the keys that brought me back to God, for I wanted to know the Artist responsible for both the beauty and the whimsy that I found there. When I feel grief over a friend’s illness or death, and my world lurches to a stop, instinctively I want to take a long hike as a reminder that the larger world moves on, fiercely beautiful, regardless of any crisis great or small. Wasn’t that God’s message to Job?

Pain works at a different level than beauty. It distills life, adds urgency. Christian Wiman, the Poetry editor, found the mantra “spiritual but not religious” of scant comfort when he faced the all-too-specific terror of incurable cancer. Needing something firmer on which to stand, he found his way back to a more solid faith: “Definite beliefs enable us to withstand the storms of suffering that come into every life, and that tend to destroy any spiritual disposition that does not have deep roots.”

The poet Matthew Arnold wrote of the ebbing of the Sea of Faith in modern times, a retreat that leaves the world with “neither joy, nor love, nor light / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” That last void, nor help for pain, may edge individuals back toward faith, even in modern societies with their many allurements to pleasure. Sexy advertisements and a shallow celebrity culture somehow lose their appeal when your 3-year-old child is dying in a hospital—or when you are. Where else can one turn but to God when all of life seems frozen in a perpetual winter?

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Mortimer Adler, a philosopher and editor of “Great Books of the Western World,” first came to embrace theism, a belief in God. Though attracted to the writings of Thomas Aquinas, for decades he resisted calling himself a Christian, a hesitation no doubt influenced by his Jewish heritage. Then in 1984, after a trip to Mexico, he fell ill from a virus that incapacitated him for months. Bed-bound, he sank into depression and sometimes would unaccountably burst into tears. During this period an Episcopal priest visited him faithfully and prayed with him.

Adler himself knew only one prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, and he repeated it over and over, clinging to every word: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name … As he lay awake in the hospital one night, he realized he had crossed a bridge without knowing it, a leap of faith to a personal God who hears our prayers. He rang for the night nurse and scratched out a note which included these words: “Dear God, yes, I do believe, not just in the God my reason so stoutly affirms, but the God to whom Father Howell is now praying, and on whose grace and love I now joyfully rely.” Affliction had shown him the way.

Taken from Vanishing Grace by Phillip Yancey. Copyright © 2014. Used by permission of Zondervan.