Many summers ago, when I was studying at Mandalay University, a classmate invited me to his hometown, Taungyi, in Shan State in Northern Burma. Shan State is somewhat like Northern California, never too hot during summer and never too cold during winter, a perfect place for a summer escape. He was a son of the governor of the state at that time, and they lived in a huge mansion known as the Mineshu Mansion, enclosed in an immense compound with beautiful gardens and trees that you could easily get lost in.
His brother was a guitarist at a rock ‘n’ roll band, so every evening we would sing together sitting on the balcony with his brother accompanying us with his guitar. In those days we were Bee Gees’ fans and Andy Gibb’s fans. So we loved to sing their songs, such as “Too Much Heaven,” “How Deep is Your Love,” and “Shadow Dancing,” etc. in addition to our usual youth gospel songs.
One beautiful evening after dinner, the two of us decided to take a walk in the back yard, and as we stroll down a winding pathway among beautiful flowers and colorful trees, I heard music coming from a corner. I asked where it came from and my friend told me that it was from the servants’ quarters. I asked him to take me there. We came to a cute little cottage where their gardener’s family lived.
The door was ajar, so I peeked inside. As soon as the people inside saw me peeking in, they stopped the music and invited us in with warm hospitality. They immediately made room for us to sit and served each of us a cup of tea. I told them not to stop their music, and requested them to continue because that was the reason we peeked in.
So they continued their little family entertainment. According to them that was what they do after dinner every day. The father, who was the gardener of the mansion, picked up the mandolin and started making music. The mother started singing. The daughter started dancing. The little brother sat next to the mother clapping his hands to the rhythm watching his sister dance. Within a few minutes, they seemed to have forgotten about us and completely immersed in their own paradise. It was a beautiful sight.
Suddenly, I felt I had seen heaven, a sheer beauty of pure happiness, and I felt I encounter a moment of truth, with a blissful humility. In fact, I was totally humbled by the scene because this family seemed having so little but apparently was much richer than those of us who came from the big mansion. I experience more happiness in this little cottage than in the huge mansion.
I began to feel as if I was poorer than this servant’s family—much poorer. Their life was like a clear mirror reflecting an image back to me that made me look like a bum. I treasure that moment to this day, and I can still vividly recall that experience and revisit it to remind me of a moment of self-encounter. I think that set the beginning of my journey of self-searching and exploration of the meaning of life, which later led me into ministry.
I think we all have come across moments like this where we came face-to-face with our true self, the moment of truth that prompts us to look into the deeper meaning of life, the moment that humbles us deeply, the moment that takes us away from living in an illusion, and the moment of “consciousness.”
Recently, I came across a movie named Shutter Island, with the main character played by Leonardo DeCaprio. It was about a World War II veteran serving as a Federal Marshal, who had been through some major traumatic experience during the war, plus his own family tragedy of one day coming home to find his own three children drowned by his psychotic wife.
He felt he had killed the kids himself because he should not have left them alone with his wife who began to show serious signs of psychosis. Holding the dead body of Rachel—daddy’s little girl—he lost his sanity, and killed his wife. He was then sent to the insane asylum on Shutter Island.
So the movie was about this prisoner who delusionally believed himself to be a detective sent by the federal government to investigate a case of a missing inmate in this prison. The doctors tried to bring him back to reality but he kept regressing. It is a good psychological thriller, with some perfect twists and exaggerations of how human mind works when we try to escape the traumatic reality. The brilliance of that movie is that you don’t know who is really crazy, until the end. In fact, not even at the end because of the subtle ending.
We live in a fallen world in which life can be more or less traumatic. No doubt that a small portion of traumatic experiences can make us mature and strong, but they can also make us escape the reality, especially when the truth is too painful to face. You might have seen some people that you know living a life totally oblivious of the reality. They live in their own little “la-la land” of imagination and denial.
The problem is it’s easy to see other people living in their own little la-la land but it’s hard to see whether we are also living in our own little la-la land. We always like to believe that we are the only ones living in reality. “Consciousness” is when we are able to see our own la-la land and consciously reorient ourselves into the truth.
Laozi said in Dao De Jing, “Those that know others are intelligent; those that know themselves are enlightened. Those that conquer others are strong; those that conquer themselves are brave.” (Dao De Jing 33)
But how many times do we have a moment of consciousness and then we regress? The question is how can we create a constant consciousness so that we can continuously center ourselves on the moment of truth?
A friend told me that his son, who is a fairly successful lawyer, believed coming to church on Sunday was extremely important for him. He said he was dealing with the dog-eat-dog world on daily basis. He could easily get lost in that hectic cutthroat environment. But Sunday is the only time he could reorient his mind on the eternal truth. For him the world out there is delusional, but right here in the church is the place of reality and the sanctuary of consciousness. It’s like coming in to look at the mirror at least once a week so that you can keep your life checked and reoriented in the truth.
The Bible says in Romans 7 that God gives us the law for this very purpose. The law is like a mirror for us to see ourselves and bring ourselves into consciousness. Without the law, we live in a spiritual delusion and we have no way to measure our little land to find out whether it is an imaginative self-denial la-la land, or the land of reality and truth.
But the problem with the law, according to Paul, is that it reveals the truth to us but it does not save us. The law is like those doctors in the movie Shutter Island, who brought Leonado DeCaprio’s character back to reality, but again the reality for him was too painful to face. Who wants to come back to the reality where you have to admit that you had killed your wife because she drowned your three children, and the tragic memory of the Holocaust victims at the gas chambers during the war?
It was too painful for him to live in the reality, so at the end of the movie he seemed to pretend to regress so that he would be taken to a place to be lobotomized—which was a type of brain surgery with serious side effects in those days. So it was equivalent to committing suicide.
In the same way, when we see the law, or when we read the Ten Commandments, they just reveal to us our won sins, like a mirror does to our face and body. It makes us feel guilty. Who wants to feel guilty even if it is the truth? Looking at the mirror and seeing our ugly sight is not helpful at all unless there is a way to make changes.
Paul says, “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.” (Romans 7:9-10 NRSV) I would paraphrase it this way, “I was happily living in delusion before I was given a mirror—the law, but now as I know the truth revealed to me by the law I feel it is killing me.” So what use?
But Paul found out that it is actually not the law that is killing us but our sinful nature that deceitfully makes use of the law to kill us. He says, “For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” (v. 11) It’s like looking at the ugly sight of the mirror and, since we cannot correct the problem by ourselves, we find a way to deceive ourselves by painting on the mirror. It just makes the situation worse. The mirror—the law—just makes an ugly sight worse!
Finally, Paul reached the core problem of human beings, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (v. 18) Even knowing what is right, we still have little ability to act on it because of our sinful nature.
Again he said, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (v. 19-20) If we know what is right, but keep doing what is wrong, then it is due to the sinful nature within us. In other words, it is not an intellectual problem, but a spiritual problem.
Paul said that God’s law is holy, but there is another law within us that is contradicting with God’s law and pulls us back to regression. At this point, Paul has reached the ultimate level of humility, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Ro 7:24)
Now who will pull us from this body of death? He ended this segment saying, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” This statement came out of the contexts of his explanation of how God saved him from a wretched man. The law doesn’t solve our problems; it just convicts us. Being convicted is not enough. We need a solution! The solution is forgiveness. This forgiveness was received through our state of humility that comes from the consciousness of our own sin, which again leads us to the consciousness of God’s grace. That’s why Paul gave thanks to God for God’s work of grace through Jesus Christ, who forgives us and saved us from the bondage of sin!
For many people the Christ on the cross doesn’t make sense to them mainly because they haven’t yet encountered themselves to a point of ultimate humility, or they are just afraid of facing the painful reality that makes us cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Ro 7:24) If we are not conscious of our wretchedness, we don’t appreciate God’s grace. If we don’t think we are sick, we don’t want a doctor.
Let us live in such consciousness that keeps us humble and centered on the truth. It is the consciousness of the high drama between the depth of our sin and the height of God’s grace that liberates us from the bondage of spiritual delusion and transforms us from a filthy life into a fruitful life bearing the fruit of the spirit, which is composed of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control.
May God bless us! Amen!
Trinity Presbyterian Church