My son is terrified of butterflies. I’m not sure when this phobia first manifested, but he’s been running away from them for years now. “Bye-bye, bud-fy!” he cries at a sighting, while his hands dart protectively toward his chest. As long as the dreaded creature remains within view, my son cannot relax, no matter what his father and I tell him. No matter how many times the size of this fragile creature he is. It’s not a rational response, but then, some of our most deeply entrenched fears rarely are.
Something else that makes no sense: my son enjoys looking at pictures of butterflies in books. Friends gave him a nature book and more than once I have found him poring over a two-page spread of all kinds of different specimens. And when he came home from school with a butterfly art project, no trace of alarm—or even interest—could be detected in my boy. That clothespin creation simply had no hold on him.
For my part, I love that little butterfly with its colorful, tissue-paper wings and pipe-cleaner antennae. It lives on my living room mantle alongside a couple of other oeuvres my son has brought home. Who knows how long I’ll get to keep it before I run out of display space and have to make some hard choices. Or before it simply falls apart. For now, I simply enjoy the work of my son’s hands, in the hope that some day his heart will sync up with his head and that he, too, will enjoy butterflies across the board, whether real or representational.
Succumbing to the push and pull of that which both draws and repels us—could there be anything more human? Perhaps that is why the Hebrew Bible—Genesis in particular, the book of beginnings—depicts so many conflicts within families. Those to whom we are closest can sometimes become our greatest antagonists. Think of it: the twelve tribes of Israel are conceived through infighting between sisters over their husband Jacob’s attentions—each fearing to be left behind in the mad dash to have children by him (Gen 29:32–30:24). David, running away from Saul to save his own skin and yet only cutting off the corner of the deranged king’s cloak when catching him unawares (1 Sam 24:3–4). And poor Samson, returning again and again to Delilah, despite her many attempts to ensnare him (Judges 16).
As I examine my own life, I see this dynamic at work in things both big and small. Ice cream calls to me from the freezer even as my brain reminds me that its calories add up most atrociously in a middle-aged body. At times medical TV shows will suck me in as I channel surf. For a few moments I will watch a grim procedure being performed, impatient to see the final result (which I presume will be good since the show features success stories). Same for couples tossed together as strangers—will they make it? Won’t they? Most seriously, I inwardly question the veracity of peoples’ statements when they testify to God’s unwavering goodness. Part of me wants to add a profound “Amen!” to their story. The other part of me flinches, thinking, “This cannot be true all the time.”
What do we do when our feelings of push and pull predominantly characterize our relationship with God? In the early 20th century, theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto wrote a book (The Idea of the Holy) in which he coined the Latin phrase “Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans.” It describes the experience of humans encountering the divine in such a way that they are both terrified and enthralled by an indefinable Other whose presence commands their fullest attention. (In Christian circles, both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien later would be influenced by this idea).
I find myself wanting so badly for God to be the loving and understanding One I can run to, the One who never grows tired of me and my problems, hang-ups, and insufficiencies. The One who is always glad to see me. My biggest obstacle, however, seems to be my playground sense of justice. For I am the believer who often forgets even to say “Hi!” to Him until my day is underway and running into trouble, who takes so many of His provisions for granted, who egregiously forgets how He’s rescued me repeatedly in the past. Saying I feel that I don’t deserve for Him to be cosmically nice to me is an understatement. So, quite sadly, I peel away from His Presence, choosing instead to run into His arms only when I don’t have any other choice but to throw my rank self upon his mercy.
Author Anne Lamott recently put it this way in the recent New York Times essay, “I Don’t Want to See a High School Football Coach Praying at the 50-Yard Line”:
“…I say to God, as I do every Sunday in confession: ‘Look–I think we can both see what we have on our hands here. Help me not to be such a pill.”
How I would love to inhabit the spiritual skin she seems to have grown into, where one realizes that God was never in the relationship for what He could get out of it, but for what you could. And that He is totally ok with that. More than ok.
We get a glimpse of God’s “super-okayness” with this arrangement in the book of Zephaniah, where the prophet must hold in tension God’s wrath over the sins of His people and His desire to draw them close and renew them. Listen to the prophet’s portrayal of the latter, rendered so beautifully in the King James version:
The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; He will save, He will rejoice over thee with joy; He will rest in his love, He will joy over thee with singing.
I must confess, trying to picture God bursting into song at my approach is a stretch for me. It’s much easier to imagine Him merely tolerating me. You know what helps? Ten years of raising a child with autism. I do not love my son one whit less because of his developmental disorder, which has been such a costly condition to cope with. And yet, I love him too much to leave him to his own devices. And so, I serve him daily, finding safe places to vent my heartbreak and frustration when I need to, drawing strength from sources both human and divine to act in his best interests. As he grows, as indeed I do too, I’m beginning to see what a privilege and blessing it is for us to be in each other’s lives. Some days I’m just astounded to realize that this little boy I love actually loves me back. And that God is bringing us both further into His purposes, no matter how “pill-like” either of us may be acting on any given day.
One other Scripture comes to mind as I consider the push-pull effect embodied by my son’s butterfly. It may be familiar to you:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
(Prov. 9:10 NAS)
I remember a professor once saying, “The opposite of wisdom is not stupidity, it’s arrogance.” He was explaining how biblical wisdom is more than just head knowledge, but an attitude of heart. Ultimately, the way one relates to God determines one’s destiny, not outward circumstances that are probably beyond your control anyway. To put it another way: in our solar system, we all revolve around a common sun that allows our planet to support life in all its forms. What keeps us in our vital orbits?
And by humility, I don’t mean abject groveling about how much of a louse one is. I mean waking up every day and saying, “Let’s do it Your way today, even if it goes against my strongest instincts about what I deserve and do not deserve from You. Help me face my butterflies, the things I arrogantly think I can handle on my own, but freak out over when they flit anywhere near me. The truth is, without You, I can do nothing.” (See John 15:5.).
In my mind’s eye, I see a man’s hand. It is open to me, and I notice that it looks roughened, healed over. As if it has known much toil, perhaps even torture. I want to take it with my own hand, feel it for calluses and scars. I want to close my eyes as I do this, really concentrate on what it says to me. If I do this, I have to trust the Owner of that hand to not only welcome my touch, but to watch out for the things I cannot control when I let my guard down. In essence, I have to bring my own offering of faith to Him, place it in His hand, and hope that He cherishes it and puts it on His mantle for safekeeping.
There are so many things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. As for me, I will focus on God’s loving acceptance of me, contradictions and all. I will try to take the time to be still and listen for a voice singing over me. Will I hear the love and joy that suffuses it? The hope that it holds for me that I will grow and get better, not always squirm around in my own skin?
This Thanksgiving, what would you like to hear? What push-and-pull conflict might you place in the hands of the One who wants to give you peace?
May you find the courage and strength to do so, the inner light to see that God is super-okay with you, just the way you are.