In college, when I was a child and thought as a child, I was enamored of Camus’ idea that “existence precedes essence”—that I have no identity but the one I create this moment, and no rules but the rule of this moment’s impulse. The flickering 20-watt bulb by which unbelievers grope after truth, in the common grace of God, had at least this much right: The only authentic living is the moment-by-moment kind.
What would it be like to live continuously in pinpoint yielding to the good Master, to have a soul so sensitive to Him “by constant practice” (Hebrews 5:14) that one is always being “led by the Spirit”?
I know all too well that other rule by which Satan reduces us to chattel. A column of mine titled “Seventeen minutes” was semi-autobiographical, of course. The moral of the story of a woman driving home from Stop ’N Shop was that an unrelenting streaming of foul meditations proves the need for a Savior. But is continuing under that tyranny necessary? Every page of the New Testament cries the opposite.
What fascinates about the woman in question is that she is not even aware. Pulling into her driveway she has total amnesia of having spent the quarter hour nursing old grievances, coveting her neighbor’s gifts, hatching manipulative comebacks, and suffering her soul to be gnawed at by some human’s opinion of her. How can we be so out of touch with our inner life?
Jesus’ most baffling behaviors in the Gospels are illuminated when we consider the existential dimension. His mother approaches Him at a wedding: “They have no wine” (John 2). Jesus replies noncommittally that it is not yet His time—then a moment later performs His first miracle. On another occasion He tells His brothers He is not going up to the feast—then a moment later goes to the feast (John 7). Either Jesus was dissembling in His first responses, or He had not yet heard from God the Father—and when He did hear in the next few seconds, He changed course on a dime.
Laying privilege aside, Jesus did all He did as a man led by the Spirit (Matthew 4:1). Then as Pioneer (Hebrews 12:2), He passed the baton to His followers. Jesus is different from us in that He is Savior and we are not, but He is not different from us in the requirement to live existentially. He is Man par excellence, come to make us excellent men. Excellent men are those who, in imitatio Christi, cultivate “an open ear,” which is better than religious ritual (Psalm 40:6).
The biggest battle is in the thought life. In a sense there is no other life than the thought life. The renewal of the mind effects transformation (Romans 12:2)—not abstractly, but in the conscious dimension. It involves our cooperation and is not a passive work of God apart from that cooperation. “In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:6) is something to do this minute on the clock.
I’m no King David, but King David messed up regarding his children, where I also failed. He suffered greatly in his private moments. I can tell. And we have many words from David left to posterity, but I look in vain for signs of morbid picking at scabs. By contrast, at Christmastime I gave my daughter a book of poetry by her favorite author, and most of them were an obsessive raking over the coals of an old divorce.
David’s deathbed words (2 Samuel 23; 1 Chronicles 28) bare no hint of self-flagellation but are full of worship. His gaze lifted upward, he speaks of “the Rock of Israel,” and the beauty of justice “like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth”—revelatory of a man who has learned how to talk his soul back to joy by meditating on things eternal rather than temporal.
Walk into your new nature, “put on” the virtues of Christ (Colossians 3:12), press into the you you are becoming. “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left” (Isaiah 30:21).