I recently offered my younger donkey, Tobin, a bit of watermelon as a summery treat.
He sniffed it, wiggled his lips ever so slightly…and kept his jaws firmly shut.
The same thing happened a month or so ago when a friend offered him an orange slice. Tobin took a sniff or two, then literally walked away. Apple slices and blueberries met more or less the same fate a few months before that.
Now, I don’t recommend feeding donkeys large amounts of treats. Being desert animals originally, they’re built to thrive on a high-fiber, low-sugar diet, and are notoriously prone to weight gain and debilitating metabolic disorders.
But I like knowing which donkey-safe treats my two young, healthy donkeys like, in case I ever need to deliver medication, coax a sick donkey to eat, or reward a hard-to-train behavior. And an occasional “puzzle” featuring a tasty treat can be fun and enriching for them.
And Tobin seems convinced that fruit, at least, just isn’t his thing.
Seriously. What kind of healthy equine doesn’t like a little sweet, juicy fruit?
What strikes me more: What kind of healthy equine won’t even try it?
I chalk it up to self-preservation. A universal (nay, infamous) trait among donkeys.
Now, don’t get me wrong – a certain degree of self-preservation is good and necessary. It keeps us alive and helps us make wise choices. After all, if we went around sampling everything that even remotely appealed to our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual appetites, we’d do ourselves a lot of damage. (Who hasn’t tried that method?)
But self-preservation becomes unhealthy when we let it hold us back from drawing close to God and living His will for our lives. When we say no to His grace or guidance simply because we can’t see how it’s helpful or even safe.
And, let’s face it: A life lived close to God challenges our self-preservation from the very beginning.
When we first come to Him, He asks us to give up our notions of self-redemption and trust in the redemption He offers through Jesus. When we set out to live for Him, He asks us to die to ourselves every day – forfeiting our right to self-indulgence and self-reliance and instead living according to His love and truth.
Because that’s the kind of relationship with Him we were made for. The kind that keeps us connected to the ultimate Source of life and good things.
But how do we pull off that kind of relationship? How do we live with unswerving faith in spite of all our fear and misgivings?
Let’s ask the donkeys.
I sometimes suspect that Tobin doesn’t so much dislike fruit as he wants to know if he’ll like it before he’s even tried it.
Sorry, buddy. That’s not how life works.
Yet sometimes I wish it did.
I’m the kind of person who likes to know everything about a situation before I face it. I want a plan for a project before I start. I want new territory mapped out before I even set foot in it.
Essentially: I want my life figured out before I’ve even lived.
Can you relate?
Unfortunately (or fortunately?), that’s not how life works. Which means that, to get through it, we need a new approach.
Yes, plans can be helpful, even necessary. Research is insightful and desirable.
But neither is always possible. At some point we’re going to be handed the unexpected and asked to respond. Now.
And even with all the time and resources in the world, at some point we have to put down our books and blueprints, lace up our work boots, and march out to meet the unpredictable. We have to live out the experience we’ve been preparing for. We have to put what we know to work in the face of what we don’t know.
If we’re going to live, and live well, we’re going to have to learn not just how to plan well, but how to improvise well. To study well…and to be open to new lessons. To gain wisdom and skills…and to apply them effectively.
And there are some things we’re going to have to let go of – starting with our sometimes desperate need to control every aspect of our lives. Our need to have our lives figured out before we’ve even lived them.
And there’s only one way to feel – or really be – safe doing that.
Reason for Confidence
My other donkey, Dulcie, is the opposite of her adoptive brother when it comes to new food. She’ll sample just about anything we offer (and, more often than not, approve).
It’s not that she has no self-preservation. She sticks to donkey-safe plants out in the pasture, and detests fly spray (which she sees as a useless, wet, strong-smelling nuisance).
Rather, she’s simply so full of confidence that she can meet most new situations head-on. She’s so sure that she (or her human guardians) can handle almost anything that what she doesn’t know doesn’t faze her.
Hence, she’s free to examine each new situation with a clear head. She’s free to entertain the possibility that something strange might actually be something good, or at least not concerning. She’s free to remember that everything her people have ever offered her has turned out to be delicious, and everything they’ve let her investigate has been safe, sometimes even fun.
Similarly, if we have confidence in something apart from our circumstances, we no longer need to worry when those circumstances change. We can hold all our plans and knowledge loosely – because we know if they fail we’ll still be okay.
Even in the face of shock, fear, and plain old disagreeableness, we can entertain the possibility that good will come from the bad.
And the only transcendent, unchanging, infinitely capable and trustworthy candidate for our confidence is our Creator Himself. The triune God, all-wise, all-powerful, all-present, who became human in Christ, who dwells in all His fullness in the heart of everyone who accepts Christ as their Lord and Savior. Who is coming again to end sin and suffering once and for all.
With Him, we can face anything life throws at us. Because we know the One who knows everything we don’t. The One who can handle everything we can’t.
He might not handle it the way we’d like or in the time frame we’d prefer. But He will see us through in a way that grows us and blesses those around us.
We can give up our need to know everything, to plan our lives in advance, and we can follow Him in faith. Because we know that He knows and plans and leads us well.
And that one “known” renders all the unknowns inconsequential.
When We’re Just Not Feeling It
That said, it’s often hard to keep our confidence up.
No matter how well we know the Lord, no matter how hard we try, we all have moments when we feel like pulling back and running away from our newest challenge. When we’re sure the strange pill He’s asking us to swallow is poison rather than medicine. When we see the desert stretching between us and the Promised Land and wish we’d stayed in Egypt.
What do we do then?
We let ourselves feel the fear, dismay, frustration. We tell God about those feelings.
And we step forward. We swallow the medicine. We cross the line in the sand.
It’s okay if we haven’t finished fearing or fuming. It’s okay if we didn’t get all our questions answered or moves laid out in advance. If He’s saying “Go now!”, then it’s time to go. If He’s ready to send us, we’re ready to be sent – whether we think we are or not.
And the more we follow Him through, the more things we realize we can follow Him through. The more we taste His goodness and faithfulness, the deeper and richer we realize they are.
And the more strange guises His goodness takes, the more prepared we are to face strangeness. The easier it is to see the potential for good in bad situations. The less life feels like a fight for survival, and the more it becomes a quest in which we’re always seeking God’s presence and will for us in everything.
And the easier it is to find Him.
A life following Jesus isn’t an easy life. But it’s the best possible life we could ever live. And it takes us to the best place we could ever be: the heart of God, the very definition of goodness.
You’d think we’d rush to taste that goodness. What kind of healthy human doesn’t want to experience inner peace, to be truly and faithfully loved, to live with a sense that they and their lives matter?
Yet we hold back. We sniff and lip, but keep our jaws clamped shut. Or we up and walk away.
We’re afraid the sweetness holds poison. Convinced the fruit we’ve been told is scrumptious will turn out sour or bland. Suspicious that the goodness is all taste and no nourishment for our famished souls.
And we’re now welcomed to it with open arms. The same arms that once spanned another, barren, bloodstained tree, whose bitterness was turned into the sweetness of victory.
Is there anything more life- and joy-giving than the love of an eternal, unchanging, all-powerful, all-present, all-knowing and -wise God who denied Himself, became one of us, died for us, and then turned the tables on death to save us and the whole world?
Take of His grace and eat. Taste and see.
Taste and see that the Lord is good;Psalm 34:8 (NIV)
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.