Swimming with the Undertow

How to start forgiving the unforgivable

Jeff’s college girlfriend Maryanne had made the minimum number of repairs on a long-abandoned, battered Buick Skylark to get it running again. Sort of. So the three of us thought it was a great idea to drive it to Florida for Spring Break.

We camped at an ocean-side state park outside Daytona. A stiff wind and churning surf greeted us as we sauntered down to the beach on our first day.

Maryanne and I spotted a sandbar about half a football-field’s distance from the shoreline, and we all started wading out toward it. When the water reached up to our waists, Jeff cautiously dropped back. Maryanne and I pushed on.

We were chest deep when an unusually strong undertow grabbed us. The force of the current pulling us away from shore shocked us. For just a second we panicked.

An undertow is not the same thing as a rip tide. The latter can drag you out to sea and drown you. An undertow sweeps you along for a short distance and spits you out. Unless you’re a small child or a poor swimmer, an undertow won’t kill you. But when you’re surprised by a powerful one, it sure feels like it will.

The first impulse many people feel in those moments is to fight the current. That can make things worse. As counterintuitive as the advice may seem, experts recommend that you swim with the undertow until you feel it release you.

As I shuffled back to the tent, I thought of a passage from John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Garp and his wife Helen had taken their kids to the beach. They told the boys to watch out for the undertow. But their young son had misunderstood and began looking for a dangerous sea creature: the Under Toad.

Irving writes,

[The] Under Toad became their code phrase for anxiety…. When the traffic was heavy, when the road was icy—when depression had moved in overnight—they said to each other, “The Under Toad is strong today.” (p. 408)

It occurred to me that my own Under Toad had been strong for a very long time, and I was afraid that it was going to kill me. I had spent loads of energy fighting it, when what I need to do was to swim with it.

Instead of denying or trying to achieve my way out of my persistent shame, alienation, and resentment, I needed to admit candidly that these were the forces pulling me from shore. It was starting to dawn on me that the Under Toad kept me in its grip as long as I fought against it. My release—and my ability to land on a peaceful shore—would only come after swimming with it.

This may sound like pop psychology to you. And that’s fine. But strictly speaking I’m talking about one of the enduring lessons of the Bible. Christians traditionally talk about spiritual practices like self-examination and forgiveness as paths to spiritual liberation and restored wholeness.

Take for instance an episode from the Joseph story in Genesis (chapters 37-50).

Years after his brothers had sold him into Egyptian slavery, Joseph had risen to the rank of second in command under Pharaoh. A famine swept the land, and those same brothers turned up begging for food.

Joseph managed to hold it together for a while. These men had degraded him, betrayed him, and tossed aside in an unimaginably cruel way. The Under Toad would have been strong for Joseph, and he initially fought against it.

Had the Under Toad merely swept him away, he would have killed or imprisoned his tormentors. Instead, he decided to swim with it.

He acknowledged his pain as his own. The text puts it this way: “Joseph could no longer control himself.” He sent his deputies and guards out of the room. “He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it.” (Genesis 45:1, 2)

His liberation and healing came with a dual recognition. He put it this way to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)

The wounds wrought by their hate still ached within him. And yet God’s love was healing those very wounds. He faced a choice: exact revenge and tumble out of control in reaction to their hate or do the hard, honest work of reconciliation and claim the freedom of God’s healing love.

Joseph chose love. Chose freedom. In other words, he swam with the Under Toad.

I talk more about transformation and becoming your True Self in A Resurrection Shaped Life. Click here to learn more.

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  1. We sure are swimming with a wild Under Toad these days of the pandemic. We cannot swim against it. We are definitely losing the battle. How do we find a way to swim along with it? How do we accept such a vengeful virus? I am hopeful God will see us through, but there are some days I doubt and wonder. Thanks for being a steady guiding hand.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I’m grateful you made the connection with the pandemic, Margaret. My practice is to just keep swimming. One day at a time. Love where I can. Do the good I can. Whenever and wherever I can. One day at a time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sometimes it feels like there are a whole knot of Under Toads that we are dealing with; Pandemic, political chaos, hunger, climate…..
    If we each can do our own little act of kindness, our own act of conservation, our own act of protection, we, as a race of humans can swim with the knot of Toads until they release us. With God guiding our strokes and our actions, loving our neighbor as ourselves, we can weather this knot of Toads.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thought-provoking piece, Jake. I grew up in Michigan and moved to southern Virginia when I was 18. Within a short time, I had two experiences of being pulled by an undertow. The second time, I wasn’t far from shore and got scraped up by sand and shells. The lesson for me: Don’t swim in the ocean. I will need to think a bit more on this, but I think that is how I handle most challenges–by turning away. thanks for the prodding.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can always count on you for a careful, insightful read, Madeline. Your reflective nature is what led me to think of you (incorrectly) as an introvert. Thanks for letting me prod you! But it’s also pretty clear from your own writing that honest, deep self-examination comes naturally to you. Seems to me that such work is actually a serious bit of ocean-swimming.


  4. In the early hours yesterday, lying in bed, I had a strong feeling of falling into deep water and being overcome. I’ve taken on board so much of what you’ve shared, great stuff, but for no apparent reason hopelessness washed over me. I actually considered I might email you and say, “what do I do when I feel I’m drowning?” Instead I focused on the heart-visions I had of forgiveness and love, and I reflected on what you’ve said about faith being relationship with a Divine person. The stuff that’d been pulling me under receded so much I actually forgot about it! I was stunned to read this post though, like my cry had been heard and help and encouragement offered. I believe your decision to post this at this time was Spirit-led. I just want to say thanks for your faith, for continually pushing onward into an ever greater understanding of the Kingdom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a powerful experience! And it always delights me (and encourages me) to hear how God weaves what seem like disparate things into a single, gracious web: your experience and this article. As for pushing forward, I don’t deserve any real credit for that. I’ve come ever more aware that I really can’t help myself. It’s a crucial part of how God knit me together. And I am amazed and delighted to hear how the Spirit is knitting you together these days. Thank you for sharing that with me.

      Liked by 1 person

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