A little while ago, I took delight in fishing a green tree frog out of our toilet (with rubber gloves on). The little frog had made our toilet its home on a few occasions, but now I felt it was time for him to be reacquainted with his natural habitat. Like the peasant girl Joan of Arc on her noble French quest, I would be his liberator!
I placed him in a bag and we walked to the rainforest about 20 minutes away. When we got to the location, he was hesitant to leap out of the bag. But eventually he did and found his way down to the creek bed. I like to imagine that the little frog was delighted to find himself amongst nature's finest: fresh water, vibrant tropical plants, ferns that drip with dew, pockets between rocks to nestle between, and lots of delicious insects to snack on.
"What the heck was I doing living in that stinky old toilet when I could have been dancing amongst this splendid display of flora and fauna?" the frog might have croaked to himself.
He was a frog with Stockholm Syndrome. Held captive to conditions he thought were optimum for living, he chose to tuck himself under the toilet bowl rim. Perhaps he had been abandoned by his family? Or he'd had a rough experience out in the wild? Or maybe he thought that in the toilet he'd be cool and safe, free to come and go whenever the mood persuaded him, and therefore was prepared to take the risk of being pooped on, yet hindering his overall potential for wellbeing?
A false sense of liberation can be dangerous, as it hinders our full development, but emancipation from anything can be a scary prospect: it's often fear that holds us back from making changes. Who are we without the habits, personality quirks, physical attributes, lifestyle, friends, job titles and accolades we've formed and worked hard to earn?
When we become accustomed to a certain way of living – though it may cause us pain and guilt and hurt and things constantly go wrong and we feel deeply unsatisfied – the idea that a better life might be waiting for us just around the corner seems a silly notion to entertain; a fairytale of sorts. In real life, frogs are not turned into princes with a kiss. They are squished under cars, captured by little boys and hung up by their legs and eaten by birds for lunch.
Of course, the world can be cruel and harsh. We cannot control all circumstances nor the actions of others. But we do have the capacity to change ourselves, our outlook on the world and choose the better path. For my little frog, I imagine life is infinitely better by the creek than in the depths of our toilet bowl. By rejoining the ecosystem, he is playing his rightful part: doing what frogs are designed to do, living the life a frog was meant to live. Better to be prey for birds in the sunlight than waste away in the depths of a toilet bowl, I say.
When we are falsely led to believe that the toilet bowl is all there is, everyday life churns away until one day, perhaps, we wake up and think, "This is actually really awful, I don't think I can bear to live this way anymore." Then we resolve to make changes. Only we find they are REALLY hard. Even though we know, inherently, that making them will make us sufficiently happier in the long run, we are more likely to take the quick-fix option or to abandon the idea altogether.
"Back to the toilet bowl!"
For a time we might think, "This is great; I am really living it up; no one can hurt me here. I am safe and have it all figured out!". But then we miss out on the really good stuff (bugs! rain! new places to explore!) and fail to realise our God-given potential; the stuff that nourishes and fulfills body, mind and soul.
We too easily negate relationship with God, and all the fruits that that bears, in exchange for pee and poop. The Israelites demonstrated how fickle we can be. Even after Moses parted the Red Sea they were complaining that everything was awful and they wanted to go back to Egypt, where they were slaves, even though they had been told they'd be delivered to the Promised Land.
I know it is easy to fall into the trap of going back to the toilet bowl, even if you have tasted what the rainforest – the Promised Land – might have to offer. I think, perhaps, that Whitney Houston had, too. Life is hard; harder still, I imagine, if you are like a deer in the headlights that is Hollywood, which shines a light on your every triumph and every fall and beacons you to take part in a lifestyle that can be destructive. It is not an ideal environment in which to live if you are vulnerable. And, really, aren't we all?
Even if God is on your side, we are all capable of falling, because many are the temptations that await our wandering eyes if we are not vigilant and wise. Solomon showed us that when we went astray, chasing women and worldly pleasures, and lost all that God had promised him. He wrote Ecclesiastes, one of the most depressing books in the Bible, as a result of the despair brought about by his infidelity to God. "So I hated life, because the world that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind." (Ecclesiastes 2:17).
I've no doubt God mourns the loss of everyone who succumbs to the persuasions of the world. Even if you have everything to live for – a beautiful child, work that is good and rewarding, talent to the hilts – life can be a struggle once the taste for the high life has whet the palette, once addiction has taken its unrightful place in your mind, heart, body and soul. And just as God, his Son and the Holy Spirit work in tandem, so too do our mind, body and soul: to neglect one is to wreck havoc. That much I know.
"But for the grace of God go I," said New Jersey governor and former US attorney Chris Christie in response to critics who condemned his decision to lower the flags in honour of Houston. "I am disturbed by people who believe that because her ultimate demise – and we don't know what is the cause of her death yet but because of her history of substance abuse that somehow she's forfeited the good things that she did in her life."
It is very hard for good, noble people to comprehend that we might celebrate someone who kowtowed to their inner demons; whose life was messy and destructive and wasteful. That Whitney, because of these things, wasn't able to realise her full potential, though her contribution to the world of music was significant. Such people are not good role models, we say – they are social pariahs whose actions we do not condone. Shame on them! Shame them to hell!
This way of thinking is the sort of thing that would have grieved Jesus no end. Because in Whitney's voice, we saw a glimpse of the glory of God, and we are all – ALL – but an action away from falling into disgrace. In God's eyes, all sin is equal, and none of us is without sin. When we start ranking sin, we fall into judgement: God's and our own. If we are righteous, in the world's eyes and in God's, then that is for us to enjoy and model to others. Celebrate sin? No. But it is not our role to condemn.
"Heavenly Father, we thank you for sharing our sister Whitney with us," prayed LL Cool J at the Grammy Awards. "Today our thoughts are with her mother, her daughter and all of her loved ones. And although she's gone too soon, we remain truly blessed to have been touched by her beautiful spirit and to have her lasting legacy of music to cherish and share forever. Amen."
What we find within the narrative of Houston's life is the story of the great human struggle: of woman and God against the world and Satan and the self. Elvis Presley, a man also given into temptation and criticised because of it, was a hard worker dedicated to his public and to God. "The image is one thing and the human being is another," he once said. "It's very hard to live up to an image."
In our image-centric world, where we are expected to reach heights of beauty, success, fame and financial gravity – instead of more humble duties, acceptance of the physical self, happy communion with God and others in community – there is much to fluff up our pride, our sense of entitlement to the lifestyle pimped by the powers that be. But we know they are empty; that chasing vanities might give us fleeting satisfaction but not enduring contentment.
"The tragic life and death of Marilyn Monroe inspired the song 'A Candle in the Wind'," write Dee Brestin and Kathy Troccoli in their book Falling In Love With Jesus. "Though blessed with beauty, fame, wealth and popularity, she seemed like a little girl lost and never found the love for which she longed. Quiet desperation led to a tragic end... Persisting in the wrong paths, whether from wickedness or foolishness, can lead to destructive behaviours such as alcoholism, running with the wrong crowds, and thrill-seeking stunts. Solomon writes: 'Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool - why die before your time?'."
Christians are not guaranteed that there won't be hardships or times of great testing; we know they create strength and perseverance and humility. In such times, we learn that God's grace and mercy are sufficient – and we need them every single day. We also do not know when our time is up or how we will go – a bomb may very well drop on our house tomorrow. But we do know that constant vigilance is required to defeat everything in life that might keep us apart from the perfect will and love of God.
"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full," said Jesus (John 10:10).
To fail to live to one's God-given potential because we have believed lies is one of the true tragedies in life. It's a shame that so many of us have to get to a point where we are rendered utterly defeated before we will wake up and resolve to make changes. Even more disconcerting is the notion that we are heading in the right direction, believing we have it all together because we are getting nods of approval ("Have you lost weight?"; "Great news on your promotion!"), only to find that the golden casket was not at the end after all.
Who is feeding our self-image? On what basis do we value ourselves? And what does a 'good life' look like?
Many people, Christian and non-Christian, do live perfectly good, honourable and respectful lives, which is wonderful. Good for them! And we should celebrate them – we all need positive role models; people to look up to who are kind and generous and smart who help to balance out our perspective on the world. What I am hinting at here is those of us who have a sense that all is not quite right within ourselves but know that life could be better: that it should not look like a toilet bowl.
To reach this point can be very befuddling. There will be a glimpse, perhaps, along the way of what it might be like to be fully yourself. The self of your dreams. The one who is in a beautiful relationship, who enjoys his/her work, who revels in all of life's delights, who enjoys the company of others, who is fit and strong and healthy and wise and fun and takes on all of life in order to be a blessing to others.
But there is work to be done. It is a daily, often hourly, struggle to get even part of the way there. There are repairs to be made. Jesus is the glue mending you along the way, pointing you in the right direction, but you will have to let go of some luggage; the heavy baggage that prevents you from living more freely. To this end, you must understand that the world is imperfect, and so too are people. We wouldn't be human if we didn't experience pain. It's how we respond to it that's important.
At every twist and turn of the road, and on the foggiest of days, there are traps that threaten to turn you off course. A memory. An unhelpful comment. A society that coos, "Do this, look like this, buy this, check this out!". And, of course there is the enemy within. Who cares about those who linger on the sidelines when your worst friend is yourself?
A solution: if you don't like yourself, let Jesus love you.
We have to realise that we are truly worthy of the full life Jesus came to give us by sacrificing himself. Once your God-given identity is imbedded in your heart, you can go about living a life in accordance with this value: enjoying the fruits of your personal relationship with God, the blessings he bestows on you and utilising your talents, time and resources in accordance with his will. The outcome is not a pseudo personality or life built on falsities, but one that is entirely your own to enjoy.
Perhaps we are skeptical: does God really love me that much, even though I am often a terrible person? Christian counsellor and scholar David Riddell of the Living Wisdom School of Counselling, has some very good suggestions for those seeking character change.
"First, let's be clear, there are no magic wands," he says. "Change requires mental and emotional effort. Much easier to reach for the magic wand or do some kind of 'quick fix'. Finding the kind of insights that will motivate change and sustain it is hard work. Phone calls have to be made. Negotiations have to be entered into. Trust must be risked and established. There's trust and effort and often disappointment. Who can really be bothered? Much easier to merely continue to get away with it, isn't it? Or is it?"
Of course not, says Riddell, things can get much, much worse if we choose not to change (and it must be our choice; no someone else's – that is our God-given right). We might settle for the easy way instead of the hard way; to avoid the obstacles of life rather than dealing with them; to live in ignorance rather than understanding; to serve values that don't serve our best interest. What we serve is what will master us: food, things, parents, exercise, the internet, porn, work...
Many are the snares that entrap us into a way of thinking that we are not worthy of a good life characterised by love, peace, contentment and joy (and woe to those who set the traps) in harmony with God. Popular ways of living can warp our thinking, disseminated through our celebrity-driven media, while perspectives, habits and ideas about life ingrained in childhood that bear little benefit – singed into our subconscious – can take time to overcome. They need to be recognised, confronted, negated and replaced.
For example, I might believe that it is impossible to be happily married, because that is what I witnessed in my childhood home, but I know, through Scripture, through empirical evidence (observing others) and through my own experience of negating self in favour of the marriage that it can be done. I have a lot of evidence to prove that thinner is not better: that this particular pursuit is destructive to mind, body and soul. That we are all very unique in body shape and size and that's what makes humanity so vibrant and wonderful.
In order to be lasting, the misconstrued assumptions need to be replaced with truth, repeated over and over again until it becomes embedded in our value system and reflected in our choices. If you think, "I am too dumb", maybe you won't apply for the university course that will help you achieve your dreams? Better to think, "With work and diligence, I can do anything." If you think, "I am a failure", then what motivation do you have to try? Bear in mind that we all occasionally lose the plot, and that there are seasons for being up and seasons for being down. Most anyone who is "successful" in any area of their life has had to learn the hard way and suffered a few knocks.
Riddell recommends envisaging what your perfect life looks like; what the rainforest might hold for you and finding good people in your (real) life to emulate. Every week I meet with two separate groups of wonderful women who demonstrate to me all that women, and friendship, is capable of; that we all come in different shapes and sizes; that we are all capable of finding contentment and humour in life despite our often challenging circumstances. This is key to getting on with things; we were created for fellowship with our fellow woman and for community and family. If there is hostility, it needs to be dealt with by accepting that people are people, and to resolve to find the best in them.
What the toilet bowl life option looks like for each of us is different: it could be the depths of addiction – of eating disorder, of drugs and alcohol, pornography or sex, of shopping/spending, of a toxic and oppressive relationship – or the incessant feeling that we are trapped in box and cannot find the key. We want to press the eject button, because it is quick and easy, instead of staying in the box until we work out why we feel trapped and if there is, perhaps, a sensible way of getting out.
Indeed, the moment we resolve to change, to get on the page with God, is often when something will go askew that sends us off on a tangent. A beloved friend or parent dies. We contract cancer. We lose our job. Or at the other end of the spectrum we stub our toe. Then our reaction is to fall back to the former status quo: flying off the handle in rage, giving into negativity, rekindling a destructive relationship, eating or drinking ourselves into a stupor, going on an all-out drug and alcohol binge.
Of course, what we wind up with when we revert to type is a whole lot more guilt and self-condemnation, possibly in the process helping others and most certainly grieving God, because He sees so much potential in you and you do not. You are doing a truly fine job of messing things up. In fact, you should have a Doctorate in Self Destruction! Brestin and Troccoli note that Scarlett O'Hara learned that harsh lesson in Gone With the Wind when she chose to pursue the affections of Ashley Wilkes instead of the wonderful Rhet Butler. When she finally comes to her senses, Rhet's response is, "Frankly, dear, I don't give a damn."
Jesus, thankfully, always gives a damn. "We surely may live through the consequences of our choices, but God will always bring us back to a new beginning," write Brestin and Troccoli. "Whenever we sincerely confess our sin, whenever we truly take steps back to Him, He welcomes us with open arms, longing to continue His romance with us."
God is always willing to welcome back a prodigal daughter or son. Always rejoicing over anyone who comes into his fold. Always full of mercy and compassion when we stumble and fall and resolve to get with the God program again. He spurns us on towards the riches that we will one day find in heaven, but he also wants us to experience heaven on earth. So you must believe – really, really, really believe – that you are worthy of full restoration and healing.
"Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?" asked Jesus. "Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."
The human will can only do so much, and if you try to do it all in your own strength, your sheer resilience, you may find you reach a finite point of utter exhaustion. At this point, look for a friendly nod from God that says, "Stay with me, kiddo, we're going to get through this together." It may be in a song, in the hug of a loved one, in a hand reaching out to hold yours, or in a little green tree frog. Just believe it can be better if you are working together with God. "For all things work for the good of those who love him and are called according to His purpose."(Romans 8:28).
"They don't always happen when you ask, And it's easy to give in to your fear, But when you're blinded by your pain, Can't see your way clear through the rain, A small but still resilient voice, Says love is very near..."- Whitney and Mariah, "When You Believe"
Girl With a Satchel