In the movie version of Stephen King's short story, The Shawshank Redemption, the life of Andy Dufresne, a young and successful banker, dramatically changes when he is convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment at Shawshank Prison for the murder of his wife and her lover. Over the years, he befriends several of the longtime prisoners, including Brooks Hatlin, played by James Whitmore. Brooks has been in the prison so long that when he is finally up for parole, he tenaciously fights to find some way to stay behind bars. When his efforts fail, he reluctantly leaves, moves into a halfway house, and takes a job sacking groceries. His fears turn out to be well founded. His life on the outside is worse than it ever was on the inside. He is terrified of the busy traffic, intimidated by his boss and customers, and lonely, with only the birds to keep him company.
Finally, exhausted in a world where he no longer belongs, and sure that no one will miss him, he hangs himself in his room. On the beam from which his lifeless body hangs, he has scratched a final whimper in the wood, "Brooks was here." The scene is poignant. Finding himself in a prison worse than Shawshank, he chose to break out from life altogether. As his friends gathered to read his final note to them, old-timer "Red" Redding remarks that Brooks had become "institutionalized." That is, he had been inside prison for so long that it had become his new world, taking the place of his old life on the outside. It had become a place where he was respected, a place where his needs were met, a place where he felt most at home.
In time Brooks found himself imprisoned by two sets of bars. At first, he was sentenced to life behind metal bars that separated him from the freedom outside. But after awhile, he found himself encaged behind mental bars that prevented him from enjoying the freedom of the outside. This is an ancient dilemma of mankind. For instance, we read that it took God mere days to free the Israelites from their slave masters in Egypt. But it took him years to rid them of the internal mentality that enslaved them as they journeyed forth toward the land of promise. Year after year they wandered, repeatedly passing up the entrance to the "land flowing with milk and honey," because they were not yet free to believe in God's power to establish them there as the rightful owners. And today, we repeatedly hear stories told of men and women who, having been held captive by some real or imagined physical deformity, undergo cosmetic surgery, yet remain confined behind the bars of a deformed self image. Or we view the tragic lives of people who, after winning the lottery and being granted their fondest wish, find that all the money in the world will not change their impoverished view of life. As the saying goes, you can take the boy out of the trailer, but you can't take the trailer out of the boy. Even so, it is far easier to release a person from prison than it is to release a person from the prison mindset. True freedom requires both.
In chapter one of his classic book, The Pursuit of God, Tozer invited you to ask the question: "What do you want more than anything else in the world?" It was a question that probed your priorities. It was followed by a second question in chapter two, "What are you willing to pay for that which you want most?" This was a question that examined the price of getting what you want most. Now in chapter three a third question is presented, "What is keeping you from laying hold of what you want most and are willing to pay for?" This is a chapter about barriers between you and God — barriers that you have willfully erected and carefully maintained.
Here we focus on the importance of having unobstructed fellowship between the One who longs to love and the one who longs to be loved. Both lovers must attend to those obstacles, each taking the initiative and responsibility for what only they can do. And so, when mankind's path to God was blocked by sin, God began a major initiative to remove that which only he could remove. In the beginning he disclosed himself in and through the natural world, and later he revealed himself more perfectly in and through the Incarnation. And today, A. W. Tozer says, "He waits to show himself in ravishing fullness to the humble of soul and the pure of heart." Having once and for all torn down the wall of sin that separated God from man, he bids us tear down the wall of self that separates us from God.
What separates us from God? Tozer suggests that is a veil. A veil "woven of the fine threads of the self-life, the hyphenated sins of the human spirit. They are not something we do, they are something we are, and therein lies both their subtlety and their power." This "self-life" he is referring to is simply the title of an entire catalog of self-sins: "self-righteousness, self-pity, self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-admiration, and self-love." And from our modern self-addicted society we could easily add: self-absorption, self-abuse, self-analysis, self-centeredness, self-content, self-destructiveness, self-help, self-gratification, self-hatred, self-indulgence, self-service, self-willed — the list keep growing as long as "self" is alive.
Tozer observes that most Christians naively think that a regular diet, consisting of the proper biblical instruction in the fundamental doctrines of man's depravity and God's justification, will alone break the stranglehold these self-sins have over us. But such teaching, as valuable, and true, and necessary for spiritual wellbeing, is not enough to free us. For . . .
" . . . self can live unrebuked at the very altar. It can watch the bleeding Victim die and not be in the least affected by what it sees. It can fight for the faith of the reformers and preach eloquently the creed of salvation by grace and gain strength by its efforts. To tell the truth, it seems actually to feed upon orthodoxy and is more at home in a Bible conference than in a tavern. Our very state of longing after God may afford it an excellent condition under which to thrive and grow."
"Oh, wretched man that I am. Who will set me free from the body of this death?" (Romans 7:24)
Tozer begins the chapter with the great Augustinian phrase, from his autobiographical masterpiece Confessions, "You have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You." It is a sweeping statement about the origin and history of the human race, and that both are anchored in God himself. He is not only the cause of our creation, but he is the purpose of our existence. Via this summary, we not only come to understand the fact of our restless hearts, but we learn why they are so persistently restless and we a restless people. Apart from God, we thrash about desperately trying to cobble together a sense of identity and purpose, struggling to find our place of belonging in this world. We know not who we are, or whose we are, or who we are destined to become. And it is only upon returning to the One who brought forth our hearts from nothing, that we end our grinding search and find rest in the Living God who is both the beginning and end of our journey. Only in him do we find our identity, our purpose, and our destiny. Therefore, Tozer addresses the message of this chapter only to the person with a restless heart — the one in whom a deep longing has been awakened by the gentle, yet persistent hand of God upon their spirit.
Many of the ancient questions regarding the what and why of our spiritual lives are beautifully answered in The Westminster Shorter Catechism. "Question: What is the chief end of Man? Answer: Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." In my opinion, John Piper says it even better, "The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever." Why is it better? Because, the way one glorifies God is by making Him the profound source of one's deepest pleasure. In short, we are called to what Tozer called, "the sweet and mysterious mingling of kindred personalities." Those who enter into such a wondrous relationship find the joy of interdependence and avoid the twin extremes of co-dependence and independence, both destructive to personhood. Co-dependence is the sickness of having oneself absorbed into that of another, with the accompanying loss of individuality. Independence is the disease of being so self-absorbed that one creates an illusory world in which there is no room for another, with the accompanying loss of community. Interdependence is the healthy path between the extremes where the individual person is honored as a unique creation of Christ and where the community of persons is celebrated as the unified Body of Christ. Here we find a mutuality of trust and love, and a place from which one can most closely mirror the intimate relationship between the three persons of the Trinity — three unique Persons, all unified in one God.
But the problem, as Tozer observes, is that "we have been guilty of that 'foul revolt' of which Milton speaks when describing the rebellion of Satan and his hosts" in Paradise Lost. We have broken free of God and have fled as far as our strength will carry us. While it is clear that we cannot possibly escape the omnipresence of the Lord, we may indeed flee from the manifest Presence of the Lord. Like Adam, we might attempt to hide among the trees of the garden, or like Peter we might say, "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord." We either run away from God, or beg him to run away from us.
I vividly remember my first encounter with the manifest Presence of God when I was a college senior. After a variety of experiences, I was forced to come face-to-face with that Presence, and it terrified me. Yet, at the same time, I longed for it. It is what is often referred to as the "mysterium tremendum" — that which overwhelms one with fear and terror on the one hand, and love and wonder on the other. But at that time, I was keenly aware that what separated me from that Presence was stronger than what was drawing me. I recognized that it was my sin that prevented me from reaching the love and wonder that I longed for, and that I had no hope of succeeding on my own. It was only later that I discovered the message of the Gospel, and that what I was unable to do by myself, God Himself did for me.
As Tozer says, "The whole work of God in redemption is to undo the tragic effects of that foul revolt, and to bring us back again into right and eternal relationship with Himself This requires that our sins be disposed of satisfactorily." It is at this point that he preveniently moves within us to persuade our heart to come home, home to God himself. Like the prodigal son, our soul awakens from its insane stupor and says, "I will arise and go to my Father." That is the first step.
"The interior journey of the soul from the wilds of sin into the enjoyed presence of God is beautifully illustrated through the Old Testament tabernacle," writes Tozer. Each sinner seeking to worship God gained entry by way of a single opening into a large outer courtyard surrounded by a wall. The first thing you encountered was a brass altar upon which burnt sacrifices were offered. It was a picture of redemption — the price of sin was a payment in blood. The next thing you encountered in the courtyard was the laver, used for washing. It was a picture of cleansing. Having been redeemed by a blood sacrifice, it was now necessary to wash away the sin and proceed as one who is now cleansed through the purifying water of confession.
To proceed into the holy place, one had to pass through a veil. Once inside the holy place, to the left would be the golden lamp stand, to the right would be the altar of shewbread, and toward the back stood the altar of incense. No natural light was permitted in the holy place. The only light came from the burning candles in the golden lamp stand. The flames form the golden lamp stand spoke of Christ, the Light of the World, as well as pointed to the Holy Spirit, who would some day manifest himself in tongues of fire. The shewbread illustrated Christ as the Bread of Life and pictured our communion meal with God. The altar of incense represented the fragrant prayers of the saints going up to God.
But the worshiper who had come this far and had enjoyed so much still had not entered the presence of God. A second veil separated the holy place from another space, the most holy place, the Holy of Holies, where there was but one piece of furniture — the Ark of the Covenant. It contained the Tablets of Law given by God to Moses, which speaks of the righteous requirements of God, as well as other items. Covering the top the Ark was a heavy slab of thick gold that could be removed. That slab of gold was called the mercy seat, upon which the figures of two Cherubim perched, guarding the holiness of God. It was the place of propitiation, or the place of "satisfaction." Hovering above the mercy seat dwelt the very presence of God himself in awful and glorious manifestation. No matter where the tabernacle traveled, upon being set up, only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and that but once a year on the Day of Atonement, with the blood of an animal which he sprinkled on the mercy seat. In effect, the blood would put off the righteous requirements of the law for another year.
The veil that covered the Holy of Holies was about six inches thick and was made of various animal skins and cloth. Once a year, the high priest could enter, but only after filling the space with incense first. Failure to do so would ensure that the brilliant light of God's presence would blind him. Then he would go in and sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat to offer atonement for the sins of the nation. It was this last veil that was torn when the Lord died at Calvary, and the eyewitnesses report that the veil was ripped top to bottom. Mark well the direction of the tear. Immediately upon being satisfied (propitiated) by the perfect sacrifice of his own Son, the barrier between God and man, symbolized by the veil over the Holy of Holies, is ripped by God from top to bottom. After the sacrifice, God opens wide the way into his presence and invites us to draw near with boldness.
After the atoning death of Christ, the temple of God was no longer the designated place where man was to meet with God. No longer was it limited to a physical structure, and restricted to only one chosen man, and only open to that man once a year. But now the presence of God himself could dwell within anyone who received Christ's free gift of atonement for his or her sins. Their body became a living tabernacle for the Holy Spirit, a Holy of Holies where the presence of God could take up residence. What had formerly separated sinful people from God's holiness had now been removed forever.
In fact, it is helpful to think of yourself as a temple modeled after the Tabernacle. Your physical body corresponds to the outer courtyard. Your soul corresponds to the holy place. And at the center your spirit, where God now dwells, corresponds to the Holy of Holies. For the believer, there is free and open access from the outer body into the inner being, and on into the most holy place where God abides. Now, the actual life of Christ can be lived through you, from the inside out, affecting the heart, the mind, the body, all relationships, and the soul. You are now invited to push on into the presence of God, where you can actually live each day of your life. It is a staggering truth to contemplate: that the God of the universe waits for you, not in heaven, not in a religious structure, but within your very heart.
God has removed the sin barrier. Now comes his invitation. Twice the writer of Hebrews implores us to "draw near:" "Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need" (4:16). And, " . . . let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water" (10:22). The call goes forth, yet we hesitate, lingering at the entrance, reluctant to push on inside. The years pass and we grow old and tired of milling around in the outer courts of our bodily temple. What hinders us? Have we so quickly forgotten who it is that waits for us? Is he not the Father who is mighty and awesome in presence, the maker of things visible and invisible in Heaven and Earth? Is he not the Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, being of one substance with the Father? Is he not the Spirit that is holy, the one who proceeds from the Father and Son, and who empowers and indwells?
The need for divine communion is desperate. Tozer observes that, "The world is perishing for lack of the knowledge of God and the Church is famishing for want of His presence. The instant cure of most of our religious ills would be to enter the Presence in spiritual experience, to become suddenly aware that we are in God and God is in us." The truths of the ancient creeds roll off our tongues so easily, while the Person of whom they speak waits within. And who is it that we keep waiting? It is the . . .
"One God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. One Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God; begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God; begotten, not made; being of one substance with the Father. And the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified."
It is a holy Trinity of Persons in one God, for . . .
" . . . we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one: the glory equal and the majesty co-eternal."
The veil of sin has been removed. The call for communion has gone forth. The need for each one to hear, to touch, to taste and see that the Lord is good, has never been greater. What is it that continues to stand between us and our heart's true home? It is the veil of self that yet remains to be torn down. Tozer writes, "Self is the opaque veil that hides the face of God from us. It can be removed only in spiritual experience, never by mere instruction. We may as well try to instruct leprosy out of our system. There must be a work of God in destruction before we are free. We must invite the cross to do its deadly work within us."
He continues with the stark reminder,
"Let us remember that when we talk of the rending of the veil we are speaking in a figure, and the thought of it is almost poetical, almost pleasant, but in actuality there is nothing pleasant about it. In human experience that veil is made of living spiritual tissue; it is composed of the sentient, quivering stuff of which our whole beings consist, and to touch it is to touch us where we feel pain. To tear it away is to injure us, to hurt us and to make us bleed. To say otherwise is to make the cross no cross and death no death at all. It is never fun to die. To rip through the dear and tender stuff of which life is made can never be anything but deeply painful. Yet that is what the cross did to Jesus and that is what the cross would do to every man to set him free."
We must abandon whatever worthless tinkering we are doing with our inner lives and give up all trial-and-error attempts at ridding ourselves of that veil. We must quit hoping that someday, somehow, we will stumble on some trick that magically removes our veil. It will never happen. God must do everything for us. Our part is simply to yield to the painful but effective process by confessing our poverty of spirit, forsaking our feeble attempts, repudiating the self-life, and then slowly beginning to live out the fact that he has been successful and that it is gone.
In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the books in C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series, the story begins with the words "There was a boy named Eustice Clarence Scrubb, and he deserved it." He was a nasty little guy. Later in the story he wakes up to find that he's become a dragon. The nasty nature inside of him soon manifests itself onto his external body. He now looks to be on the outside what he is on the inside. Eventually, the Lion in the story, who represents Christ, tells him, "Do you want to become a boy again?" Of course he does. And so the lad, now in dragon skin, tries to remove the dragon nature using his own talons to cut it off. As he cuts he finds that it is very painful. Eventually, he succeeds in tearing it off. But he soon finds that there is another dragon beneath. So, he cuts that skin off as well. Still he finds that there is another one, and another one under that. Finally, the Lion says, "You will not be able to do it yourself. I will have to do it for you." So, Eustice Clarence Scrubb grudgingly gives permission for the Lion to cut away the dragon skin and return him to being a boy again. Using his claw, the Lion cuts so deeply that the dragon-boy feels he will surely die. It is so painful, so agonizing. When the Lion is finished, the boy looks down and sees a very thick dragon skin lying on the ground. The Lion tells him to go wash in a pool of water. When he comes out of the water he's a boy once again.
The imagery is powerful. What we need done, we are unable to do ourselves. But God, being unwilling to violate our free will, will not do what only he can do without first receiving our permission. But when we agree to let him do his work, he immediately proceeds with the transformation process. Make no mistake; it is a bloody and painful process. Yet when it is over, he cleans up our lives and gives us our humanity back. We are transformed into precious children, beloved by their Father.
In similar fashion, Tozer reminds us that it is not our job to remove that which separates us from God. The doctrine of self-crucifixion, so widely practiced by most every religion in order to gain salvation, is never successful before God. But neither is it effective for Christians who hope to have intimate fellowship with their heavenly Father. Having removed the barrier of sin that separates us, he is also the one who is able to remove the barrier of self that separates us. The surgery required is something only God himself can be trusted to do right. Whenever we try to do it ourselves we only increase our pain and suffering, but never our spiritual health. Here is our problem. Our heart's desire has been too closely enmeshed with the aspirations of this fallen world. Letting go of that is no easy task. The prospect of losing our false self, even though it has been nothing but trouble for us, is terrifying to us. Yet it must be cut away in order to make room for our truest self, the one God that has treasured in his heart from all eternity.
Are you ready to ask God to tear off that woven veil of hyphenated sins of the self-life, that opaque barrier that separate you from the manifest presence and matchless glory of God? He is able. And he will employ the same instrument of death that purchased our freedom from sin's slavery — the cross. As Tozer says, "The cross is rough and it is deadly, but it is effective. It does not keep its victim hanging there forever. There comes a moment when its work is finished and the suffering victim dies. After that there is resurrection glory and power, and the pain is forgotten for joy that the veil is taken away and we have entered in actual living experience the presence of the living God."
I believe that there comes a point in our spiritual journey where we hit a barrier, a barrier that bars our way to the best of what God has prepared for us. Everything we hope to have in Christ is on the other side. Yet nothing we do can breach that wall. It is the point at which we come face to face with the stark challenge of Romans 12:1, "I urge you therefore, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, which is your spiritual act of worship." It involves the total and voluntary sacrifice of self, offered to God without condition. Paul is telling you to willingly climb up on the altar and lay down as a living sacrifice. But there's always a problem with living sacrifices, is there not? It wants to keep crawling off the altar. So, this death of self must be followed by a transformation, a new way of living life that is well-pleasing to God. "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you will be able to test and approve what God's will is, His good, pleasing and perfect will." Then each successive day we must recommit ourselves to the immolation of the self and to the transformation of the self into Christlikeness.
The Romans 12 decision is the only pathway through the barrier of self. If you never choose to break through that barrier, you will consign yourself to mediocrity in your spiritual walk. And because God loves you and is committed to finishing what he started in you, he will take you into the wilderness of consequences where you will experience his severe mercy, with the hope that, in your desperate condition, you will finally submit to his transforming grace.
God has pardoned you from sin's prison. The doors not only stand wide open, they have been torn down, from top to bottom. You are now free to walk out of your life as a slave to sin and free to run and embrace your Savior and Lord. Why are you not running to him? It is because you are still living an imprisoned existence, free from sin on the outside, confined by self on the inside. Let this prayer be your prayer of liberation.
"Lord, how excellent are Thy ways, and how devious and dark are the ways of man. Show us how to die, that we may rise again to newness of life. Rend the veil of our self-life from the top down as thou didst rend the veil of the Temple. We would draw near in full assurance of faith. We would dwell with Thee in daily experience here on this earth so that we may be accustomed to the glory when we enter Thy heaven to dwell with Thee there." In Jesus' name. Amen.