A man was standing at the edge of a cliff. He lost his footing and tumbled toward the earth hundreds of feet below. Flailing and grasping wildly for something to stop his fall, the man’s hand caught a root jutting out from the sheer rock face.
Clinging to that tenuous hold with all his might, the man looked up and then down. He was midway between top and bottom. There was no way to climb back up. The ground was still perilously far below.
The man was not especially religious. But seized by terror, he cried out.
“If there’s anyone up there, I need your help.”
To his astonishment, he heard a voice in reply. Clearly, but gently, the voice said, “Let go.”
He hesitated. Then, looking up to the sky again, the man said, “Is there anyone else up there?”
My friend Steven Bonsey often tells this story at the beginning of spiritual retreats. People usually take part in his retreats because they yearn to deepen their relationship with God. As Steve’s story illustrates, going deeper with God involves letting go.
We struggle to let go because we’re afraid that we’ll fall and that the fall will kill us. As it turns out, we will fall. And we will die as a result. An old self will die. And with the death of this old self, a new, truer self will emerge. A self who is learning—day by day—to love what God loves.
Early in his earthly ministry, Jesus eased us into the idea of dying to live. A wise, respected religious leader came to him by cover of darkness. Nicodemus had seen in the ways of Jesus a whole new way of living. A whole new kind of life that the political and religious establishment thought was crazy. Even dangerous.
Nicodemus came to hear about that kind of life even though he wasn’t so sure about it. He wasn’t ready to go all in. He wasn’t ready yet to risk the ridicule and the rejection of the successful, powerful in-group to which he belonged.
But he sensed something in this Jesus. A new way. A new life. And his yearning for that new life drew him toward Jesus against his better judgment. He heard more than he had bargained for.
My guess is that he was looking for some additional spiritual tools. Maybe Jesus could show him how to pray more effectively or clear up once and for all a couple of hot theological issues or give him seven principles for a successful holy life.
This is not what Nicodemus got.
“You don’t need a spiritual tuneup,” Jesus said. “You need a whole new life.”
As we read it in John’s Gospel, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:3)
It’s as if Jesus told him, “This life that you see—the life that turns water into wine, makes the lame walk, restores leprous flesh, and makes the blind see—isn’t one that you can make for yourself. This life arises from a source other than your present self.”
Nicodemus was befuddled. How do you get reborn? You can’t very well turn back the clock and re-enter your mother’s womb.
Jesus says that it’s a Spirit thing. The Spirit will blow where it will. And this new life that Jesus is talking about—the life that Jesus embodies himself and models for us—is a Spirit-blown life. A life animated by God. And since God is love, a life animated by the divine love.
In the final hours of his earthly ministry, Jesus returns to the same subject. Life. Eternal life emerging right here in your kitchen, on your playground, in your office, and at the grocery store.
Facing his death and anticipating his resurrection, Jesus reminds them that God continues to be present. Not over there, outside of them. But within them. At the very core of their being. God the Holy Spirit is not to be sought in some faraway heaven. Instead, the Spirit is always already abiding within us.
The Spirit is like a vine, Jesus tells them. We are the branches that emerge from that vine. What we are, our interior stuff and our outer shape, rises up out of that vine. At least, that’s what the True Self looks like.
Jesus explains that he sends into each of us the Spirit of truth. In the age of information and scientific mastery that we inhabit, we may hear Jesus’s reference to “truth” in a way he did not intend.
We may hear that the Spirit of truth will instruct us in the correct doctrine and the right moral code. In other words, it’s possible to think that Jesus wants us to be spiritual know-it-alls. We get instructions directly from God, so we can smugly tell other people how to understand the world and how they should act.
But that’s not what Jesus meant by the Spirit of truth. He meant something more like this.
We can spend much of our lives straining to attain results, to accumulate achievements, to win approval. When and if we reach out to God, we look to enlist somebody with serious muscle to help us get what we want.
Even when we want good things, the emphasis is on what I want. Life is defined by the fulfillment of my own personal desires. Whether you call this the False Self, the Ego, or a self-centered soul, that’s the self that we’re frequently clinging to. And it is the self that will die if we let go.
The self that emerges—the True Self—still pursues what it loves. But that self draws deeply from the living source within. That self is at least beginning to love what God loves.
That self seeks to give instead of consume, to cooperate instead of compete, to nurture instead of coerce. That self seeks the well-being of others as the only path to its own well-being. That self recognizes that God dwells within everyone it meets. That self dwells in this world to remake it in the image of God’s love.
Letting go can be harrowing. But in a way, all of life is learning to let go. Learning to die. So that we can receive the true life that flows from God.