Posts Tagged ‘vision’


I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

The apostle Paul was more than merely the first strategist for the mission and expansion of the early church. He was also a “mystic.” We use that term guardedly, since it has become a catchword in our day for so much that is hokey and superficial. Being a mystic has nothing to do with cards or stones or stars, but is instead the name for those whose spirituality is deeply inward and characterized by contemplative prayer, intuitive vision, and union with the Divine.

This is not to say that the visionary experiences of some mystics are altogether rational, for they typically aren’t. Paul’s mystical vision conveyed him into a realm of such mystery that his rational mind and logical vocabulary were effectively paralyzed by its impenetrable glory.

Being “caught up to the third heaven” is a highly poetic and metaphorical way of describing an experience essentially beyond description. In the sacred cosmology (theory of the universe) of Paul’s day, the “third” or (in other views) “seventh” heaven designated the zenith of the firmament, where the throne of God was believed to be.

In other words, Paul is relating an experience of being elevated to the seat of Truth itself. This was a bona fide revelation, a pulling back of the veil of ignorance and belief, which together separate us from the true reality. When the screen is removed or the curtain pushed aside, what we see is unnameable but supremely real.

ISAIAH 25:6-9

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
    Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
    This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

The prophet Isaiah lived in the eighth century BCE in the southern kingdom of Judah. During this time, the Assyrians were pressing down from the north, having invaded and dispersed the ten tribes of the north just a few months earlier. Judah’s king had been considering the political advantage of joining some of the emerging alliances among smaller kingdoms in their effort to fend off the armies of Assyria.  But Isaiah was critical of this idea, since it represented putting Judah’s trust and fate in the hands of foreign powers. What was needed, the prophet insisted, was for the king and his people to anchor their faith in God.

At this point, Isaiah held forth a vision of the future. A vision is a clear and compelling mental picture of an ideal future that inspires new values and pulls our behavior into alignment with higher aims. By definition a vision is idealistic, and yet the influence of a truly powerful and long-range vision lies in its ability to help us see beyond the limits and conclusions of our present world – that is, the world as presently arranged. Isaiah saw a time when his people would have enough food, be free of sorrow, and live forever in joyful celebration of  God’s sovereign grace and generous hand. For those who could believe it, the anxious threat of Assyria would not be the last word.


At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

2 Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
3     the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
    O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
    and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5 Again you shall plant vineyards
    on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
    and shall enjoy the fruit.
6 For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
    in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
    to the Lord our God.”

Jeremiah was the son of a priest and very likely had been one himself, when he felt God’s calling out of the religious establishment and into the streets as a prophet. Mounting tension in Judah’s international relations was causing concern for many, especially as the superpowers of Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt and Persia were becoming increasingly interested in its prime real estate.

The response from the religious establishment was effectively no response at all. Generally the belief was that God would protect his temple, the holy city, and its people from harm since they had been chosen for a long and bright destiny. God wouldn’t let his most important project fail, and since the Jews figured so centrally in that project, he wouldn’t let any harm come to them either.

But as we know, the city walls did come down and its temple was destroyed, an event that was not only a political catastrophe but an existential crisis of the first order. All at once, the fabric of meaning was ripped to shreds and the foundations of security were shattered into pieces. Jeremiah had sounded the warning, but no one listened. Now in the aftermath and amid the wreckage, he could only say, “I told you so.”

But he didn’t. Instead, he helped his generation through a process of serious self-examination. Their self-righteous complacency and sense of entitlement had made the nation vulnerable to collapse. It wasn’t the Babylonian army that overpowered them, and it wasn’t because God had abandoned them. Rather they had lost their vision, forgotten their divine appointment, and allowed their once-vibrant faith to recede from the edge of risk and fall asleep under the hedges of orthodoxy.


Only after coming to terms with their own responsibility in this tragedy could the survivors really find healing. This has always been true. When your circumstances close in around you, when it feels like God isn’t hearing your prayers and other people don’t care, it is tempting – almost irresistible – to look outside yourself for both the culprit to blame for your troubles and the savior who will rescue you from them. In either case, the locus of creative control is deferred somewhere other than where it really belongs, which is inside yourself.

That’s not to say that you must take the blame, or conversely pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Taking responsibility is importantly different from taking blame. Blame is really a story you tell yourself for the purpose of assigning a cause to your pain and anger. Beyond pinning your troubles on someone or something else, blame has the additional benefit of letting you do nothing but stand there and point. Or if you are blaming yourself, it can leech like a paralyzing anesthetic into your soul. As a consequence, your personal challenges can slowly evolve into chronic problems – not going away but instead getting worse.

To take responsibility you need to stop looking behind, around, or even up ahead for the solution you seek. While it is certainly true that these dimensions of your situation can contain insight, resources, and guidance, your salvation starts as you find your center and place both hands on your pain. However it got here, it is yours. Insisting that someone else did this to you doesn’t take away the responsibility of dealing with it.

The way of healing and freedom begins at the point where you realize that you have control over whether and to what extent you allow this ordeal (loss, hardship, betrayal, or abuse) to define you and determine the rest of your life.

Jeremiah grieved with his people as they stood in the rubble of their beloved homeland. He helped them take responsibility by accepting the reality of their experience. But then he challenged them to hold a different frame around their pain, one that could let them see that this experience was not just an ending but the start of something new.

ISAIAH 35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
    but it shall be for God’s people;
    no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
    but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

The utopian vision of a future paradise on earth has given inspiration to song and poetry in every culture on earth. As things appear to us now – and as they’ve appeared to every generation since the dawn of humanity – there is conflict, turmoil, crisis and hardship mixed in with the ecstasies of our life in time.

But as is the habit of mind, human beings have not been satisfied with the idea that this has always been the case, or that it will forever be the case, or that this mixture is the truth of reality deepest down.

Resolutions have arisen, predictably, which posit a perfect state of harmony and goodness either at the very beginning, and from which we have fallen; at the end, towards which we are presently progressing; or in the foundational essence of pure being, when we may enter by a more mystical path.

The evolution of religion itself has advanced through these three, and in that very sequence – first looking back to a paradisal garden, then ahead to a heavenly city, and finally inward to the place that is no place, to the kingdom of God within.

In the modern West ever since the so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the critical position taken by rationalism has been that all of this talk of religion is nothing more than fantasy and wishful thinking. The truth is that reality is a mixture of good and evil, and we must simply and responsibly accept this fact – if we must judge at all.


A disastrous oversight of Western rationalism concerning the validity of poetry, art, symbol and story, both as products of the mythic imagination and basic elements in the language of religion, was the importance of taking these not literally but metaphorically. Once the metaphor of Isaiah’s mythic paradise is reduced to nothing more than an actual state of affairs in the near or far-off future, the prophet’s vision collapses into becoming a mere prediction – an easily falsifiable prediction, in that case.

We understand now that such a chain of mistaken judgments was necessitated by the logical commitments early in the rise of rationalism. Truth needed to be based on evidence, evidence needed to be measurable and accessible to the detached observer, and conclusions needed to be consistently verifiable through repeated experiments. The (mythological) language of religion passes none of these tests, and was therefore dismissed as an unreliable source.

But metaphors by their very definition are word-images not intended to be taken literally. In its root meaning, metaphor is that which carries the mind across the boundary of mystery that contains our present knowledge, for the purpose of touching and exploring ultimate reality in terms of what we do know.