Tuesday, December 21, 2010


For the vast majority, religion or spirituality equals self-improvement, an extension of our own ambitions to write the iconic novel, achieve the PH’D or to own a house with a swimming pool and a three-car garage. However, spirituality merely flips our horizontal, materialist aspirations vertically to the heavenlies. It adopts the idea that we can climb the “ladder of success” in a spiritual sense through our good deeds, our loving relationships, enlightenment, or just simply by learning how to be in-touch, whether with ourselves, others or with a universal consciousness.

I had tried to climb this ladder with a series of highly recommended psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists, each leaving me worse off than I had been before. Finally, I adopted a new faith – I would move to Israel and find the meaning I so desperately desired through my identification with my ancestral people. However, after this failed, I moved in with an ultra—orthodox Hasidic sect, the Lubavitchers, for a week, verticalizing my quest.

I asked many questions about this road and its promise of meaning and peace, but received few tangible answers. One evening, a young American approached me:

“Danny, I know exactly what you are experiencing. Last year, I felt the same way as you do now. However, there is a Tzadik (holy man) in Tel Aviv who can open up for you the Hebrew Scriptures and prove to you, beyond any doubt, that it is truly the Word of God!”

My heart leap! I needed to know that this – the way of fulfilling Torah – was the right path. By knowing that it came from God seemed like a big first step. Ben arranged a private audience for me with the Tzadik, and off we went. I found myself sitting opposite the holy man at a small table, as he studied me carefully and as his followers waited expectantly for him. They regarded their Tzadik as the ladder, the intermediary between God and their hopes and desires.

The Tzadik began to shake his head gently, almost apologetically, and it wasn’t in the vertical direction.

“You are not ready to study Torah. There is too much confusion in your life. You need to first find a measure of peace. Go live in a good observant Jewish community, and then come back to me in a few months, and we’ll talk again.”

“Talk again?” I hadn’t uttered a syllable! But what hurt most was what was implied. God couldn’t help me until I improved myself, and I knew that I couldn’t. Everything in my life had communicated this disheartening measure to me. I had tried for years, in many different ways, to climb out of my malaise, and nothing worked. My one hope was that, perhaps, there was a God who could do it for me, but the Tzadik had indicated that God wouldn’t climb down the ladder. Instead, I would have to climb it myself.

In desperation and also out of a sense of divine rejection, I screamed at the stunned holy man. However, in my heart-of-hearts, I believed that he was right, and that I was a flawed individual, beyond remediation, and I too was right.

Only much later did I come to see that this was true for all of us members of the human race. The only difference is that most people believe that they can climb the ladder to freedom, merit, self-worth, the divine, or enlightenment. However, this trek requires a trunk-load of denial. In order to believe that we can ascend, we have to deny the fact that we don’t have spiritual wings. It’s also to deny what should be so obvious to all of us – our self-righteousness, bitterness, jealousy, lovelessness, self-centeredness, and selfishness, often masked by our self-exalting identity as a good person, or a loyal friend, or any number of other veneers.

However, in the Messiah Jesus, I found a God who has descended the ladder for the helpless, even for His enemies. He promises that it’s no longer about us and our supposed abilities, insights, spirituality or virtues, but about His alone (Gal. 2:20; Romans 8:31-32)! Consequently, I’ve ascended the vertical, but it wasn’t alone; He carried me!

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