“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I am troubled; O Lord, come to my aid!’ But what can I say? He has spoken to me, and he himself has done this. I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul. Lord, by such things men live; and my spirit finds life in them too.”—
Gauges and Designs
I have the bad habit of testing the meaning of the word “empty” when my gas tank warns it is nearing the last of its resources. With each car I’ve owned this process starts out innocent enough. Either I’m low on fuel and can’t find a gas station or I’m late for an appointment and decide to stop for gas afterward. But somehow this initiates the unreasonable course of challenging my gauges. If I was once able to go eight miles with my fuel light on, I reason, perhaps I could make ten. If I made it all the way home from work the last time, this time I can surely afford to make one more stop.
For a while I drove a car that I was beginning to believe had broken gauges. It seemed like I could drive with the fuel light on forever. Each time the gauge cried empty, I would ignore it to the point where I was certain I was running completely on fumes—and each time I would get away with it. It actually started to bother me. This, I realize, sounds ridiculous, and is probably not good for my car or me, for that matter. Of course, I don’t actually want to run out of gas. But I want to know my gauges actually mean something.
Perhaps my unreasonable battle with the word “empty” illustrates a similar phenomenon in life. We want to ignore anything that suggests we are creatures of limitation; we want to challenge every gauge and ignore every boundary as long as we possibly can. As children we ward off bedtime though fighting heavy eyelids and perfidious yawns. As we grow older we take the struggle to deeper levels, learning to deflect notions of despair or emptiness, to stifle certain questions in the back of our minds, and to keep our consciences at bay. Like exhausted children insisting they don’t need sleep or drivers challenging their inevitable need for gas, we attempt to defy life’s gauges and indicators as if they were indicators of nothing.
English writer F.W. Boreham tells a story about an old gravedigger whose terrible cough educed the sympathy of a cemetery visitor. The coughing man gestured to the graves around them, noting, “There’s plenty here who’d be glad of my cough!” His point is clear enough: even a cough is an indication that life is still present. But all the same, it is a sign that should indicate much more, lest the old man be dragged into a grave of his own. Carrying this thought to a higher place, Boreham wisely comments, “The torments of an aroused conscience are symptoms of spiritual vitality for which a wise man will give thanks on bended knees; but they are useless and worse than useless unless they drive him, in his desperation, to the fountain open for all sin and for all uncleanness.”(1)
However good I have become at ignoring signs and indicators within my own life, I am at some level aware that it is more than a sign I am ignoring. To live with gauges that go off for no reason would be absolutely maddening. Pain and conscience, unrest and struggle are gauges we have been given with good purpose. They are indicators that bid us to pay attention and can lead us to the place that needs tending. I believe they are also indicators of a designer, whose desire is that we should be led to the true design.
During a time of illness and recovery, King Hezekiah followed his anguished soul to a place beyond physical comfort. In a prayer recorded in the book of Isaiah, Hezekiah recognizes the great lengths God used to drive him to the throne: ”I cried like a swift or thrush, I moaned like a mourning dove. My eyes grew weak as I looked to the heavens. ‘I am troubled; O Lord, come to my aid!’ But what can I say? He has spoken to me, and he himself has done this. I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul. Lord, by such things men live; and my spirit finds life in them too” (Isaiah 38:14-16).
Perhaps there is life to be found even in gauges we’d rather ignore. Empty tank or tormented conscience, might it drive us into the arms of God.