He didn’t see me coming. I burst into the room, the door slammed into the wall. Everyone froze, while the freshman class president urinated in his sink. I grabbed a fist-full of his loosened pants and slammed his face into the mirror above his sink.
“Are you deaf! I told you to shut, up!”
I held his neck, wheeled around, and threw him to the ground, driving his freshman face into the carpet, and jammed my forearm into his kidney.
“Now turn off your music, you cuss!”
Everyone in the room stood motionless. They’d seen me fly off the handle before. They knew enough to know I was volatile. But this time, I was unbridled. I liked possessing the power of unpredictability. It kept the weak minds at bay, I thought, and out of my business.
I grabbed a fist-full of his loosened pants and slammed his face into the mirror above his sink. Then, to the floor.
“Get off of me!” he yelled. I could feel the blood in my veins, coursing, surging, raging. I wanted to pound him — I felt as if I could grind him into dust. That feeling, even collected in hazy memory, exhilarates and frightens me. Something of hell resides in raw anger; it cloaks itself in power, but underneath the shroud lurks the twisted face of a slave driver.
But, no punches flew. Something in my head told me to relent. So, I did. With a shove I stood up and left the room. My shift at the bakery began in a couple of hours, midnight to six. I went back to bed feeling like I had just eaten. I felt satisfied. The thirst for satisfaction, for raw sensual pleasure, leads to dark places.
Discovering the "And Yet" of God
Ole Grandpa Willard was alive and well, apparently. He was a hardened farmer, who used to smack my father up-side the head for no reason. Something of the raw farmland of his soul was stuck in my heart. It has always been hard to control. The church split our family endured when I was eleven—the one that included the church my dad started from nothing voting him out for no reason—contributed to the mess of me. That was a heavy item to carry in my church-God-baggage.
At times my anger has driven me to excel, to not care about what anyone thinks. Other times, well, I’m trying to wash my memory of all the other times — the high school expulsion for throwing my shoes at a teacher, destroying the high school stage with green temperament paint in a fit of rage, the shattered truck window, the phone through the wall, the fist through the wall, through the door, broken this, broken that.
That “altercation” with the freshman class president was the beginning of the end of my time at Liberty University. I was expelled later that semester for attending an off-campus party and for a bottle of tequila that was traced back to me as the owner — blasted freshmen.
“Mom, I have to come home.”
“Why? What happened? Is everything okay?” Mom, always being mom.
“I got kicked out. They’re expelling me.”
The line went silent. Then the line went dead.
I hung up and drove to my sisters apartment — she was a senior English major. I sat on her kitchen floor and, through tears, called my parents again. As I relayed all the information my sister stole my bible out of my things.
After my conversation with my parents she told me goodbye and I drove back to campus and packed the rest of my stuff. That night I opened my bible and found the page she had marked: Lamentations 3:21–33. “Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.”
I cannot read the first line, to this day, without choking on tears. It’s the word “yet.” All this happened and yet. You screwed up, Tim, and yet. You say you believe in me, Tim, and yet. That word haunted me for the next several months.
A week later, when I arrived home, people kept asking why I was home early — it wasn’t quite Thanksgiving break. The embarrassment seethed in me, and yet.
I promised my dad no partying — whatever that meant. It wasn’t the partying or the alcohol that got me. It was the anger, the attitude, and the antipathy toward God and his so-called church. It was what Liberty and other so-called Christian institutions represented to me — an authoritarian type of faith bent on control and prejudice.
Up to that time in my life I lived as the angry middle finger toward Christianity. I was a brute. I knew I was broken—we all are—but I reveled in my brokenness. It was my excuse to do what I pleased.
What I didn’t realize was that my anger was a mask for desire: a desire to be filled, to be satisfied, to be whole, to be at peace, to be “okay.”
We, The God-hunters
You and I, we’re born searchers, always hunting for that something we sense behind the films that make us cry, the music that makes us shout, the feelings that make us want to possess the love of another person. We the seekers, we look “everywhere for footprints of the Divine, whose challengewe have felt, and upon whose reality” we gamble our very life.
I’m not sure what happened in the heavenlies when I prayed to God to “come into my heart and be my Savior.” After all, how real is the prayer of a five year-old? And yet, I do think something began to grow that day. Perhaps a faith-seed sprouted, and endured the storms of boyhood doubt along with the out-right rejection of organized religion by my adolescent self after the awful church-split.
That freshly sprouted stalk of belief in my life eventually bent low and endured a withering, something very close to death. That was me after Liberty, spiritually dead, disillusioned, angry, but also tired. My spirit felt worn. I teetered on the brink of total disbelief — me the twenty year-old who longed for something more.
One winter night, after my expulsion, I worked past dark in my father’s back yard cutting firewood. When the sun fell, I built a raging fire and kept swinging the ax. Finally, I stopped and plopped down on a log, my heartbeat echoed in my ears, my breath billowed like the pants of a deer. I sat long beneath the Pennsylvania stars.
The flames danced, the wood popped, and in that wintry silence I raised my knife of faith one last time, just like I remembered Abraham doing as he prepared to gut his son. “Ok God,” I prayed “I want you to be real. I want this faith to be passionate, to be deep like this night. Show me your depth.”
A ram did not appear in the thicket. The stars listened to my prayer and the bonfire before me continued to crack and spark. Nothing happened, no voice fell from the sky, and no angel appeared out of the pine trees.
The winter air held the moment — the rich scent of burning oak, the warm on the front of my body. I was drawn into the fire for the cold behind me. The flame held me like the prayer I offered. I sat in the quiet of the breezing pines near the edge of the property.
I hung in the echoes of the clear crackle of a winter fire. And in that moment I felt my soul. It moved in the yet of the moment. I remembered the words after the yet and after the hope in the Lamentations passage.
“Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed.”
Consumed? Was I consumed? Had the flames of my anger and hatred engulfed me?
“No,” whispered a voice in my head. “You are not so far gone.”
I felt the thirst for hatred, for violence, heave within me. It was stuck in my soul but was being invaded. A new fire swept into me, and it felt like life. I closed my eyes and could see Moses’s burning bush, and the words it spoke to him.
“I AM your fire now, Tim. I AM your thirst. I AM your hope. And I AM yours.”
I doused the fire, and returned to the house. I was cold and hungry. But I was no longer that angry young man. I felt a new kind of desire, a new kind of thirst — a thirst for Fire.
I Am Restless For A Reason
St. Augustine said our souls remain restless until we find our home with God. My restlessness manifested in anger and bitterness. I called out injustice wherever I saw it, especially in the church. I wanted to correct everyone, to be right, to argue, to lash out and not care, to satisfy my desire.
That night after the fire, however, was my homecoming. In those quiet moments, beneath the starry hosts, with my life laid bare, I finally saw myself how I’m sure others saw me: monstrous.
That night I came face to face with something beyond religion, beyond ritual, beyond the stale mantras of western evangelicalism. C.S. Lewis says, “Men are reluctant to pass over from the notion of an abstract and negative deity to the living God.” We’re reluctant, I think, because we fear the encounter with a real living God.
But I wanted something real. I thirsted for something beyond my own rage to consume me.
I had bottled up hurts and disappointments from an abstract deity with no name. But at the fire that night I found something tugging on the end of my line; I felt someone breathing in the darkness just beyond the pines.
I found “God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband.” When I realized that God was not a far off negative deity, I cowered like a wolf before the flame—transfixed in the wonder and beauty of that which can truly consume.
It is when we come face to face with the Beautiful that our brutishness shows itself in all its appalling glory.
It was then my focus shifted. It was then my desire turned inside out. It was then I began the never-ending homecoming of going “further up and further in” into God himself. I started reading the New Testament, especially the words of John the Beloved. I dove into the narrative of Jesus’s life, death, and subsequent resurrection.
Jesus was radical, and demanded those who follow him to do so with like radicalism. I heard him whisper, “ With abandon” in my prayers and felt my bones burn with life. I wasn’t moving into some tepid politicized movement. I was moving into The Way itself. Love, resurrection, life—Jesus didn’t possess these things, He was these things.
Scholars say beauty encapsulates experience and sense of the sublime. We not only see beauty, we experience it and sense it beyond the material things of this world. We can’t fully explain it, but we know it’s there, we know it’s true.
Years ago I was looking for the passionate, the otherworldly—that which would make me want to soar. But I didn’t find a sensual satisfaction. Rather, I found dying, a melding, a vanishing into the Other, and this came in the quiet moments beside a fire beaneath the stars. I found the Beautiful. I found Jesus.
Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.