Once upon a time there was an oasis in a certain desert. Water there was ample to appease the thirst of the parched travelers who stopped by. The well was deep, the water cool and shimmering with pristine purity. The drawers were always standing by to fill the buckets of the visitors who turned in there for rest and replenishment. One day a strange thing happened. A wayfarer showed up, his features withered, his lips painfully split with dehydration and in a fever pitch of burning thirst. Without a bucket he rushed unsteadily to the well where he implored a ready drawer give him water “Where’s your bucket?” asked the drawer. “I didn’t come with a bucket!” railed the impatient wayfarer. “Don’t you furnish the buckets?” “Oh, no, sir, you quite misunderstand the system,” explained the abused drawer. “Here we just draw the water. You must bring the vessel. We assume those travelers who stop in here come prepared to receive. Our business, you see, is water supply. We are not in the bucket business.” In a fit of thirsty impatience, the indignant nomad trudged off fumingly in search of another oasis. On his way out, he muttered something about knowing of a better oasis elsewhere that also supplied pails. And he was right. In fact there were several such oases in the dry wilderness. They promised much and expected little of their desert visitors. They advertised themselves as more user-friendly, supply-side oases. They promised wayfarers who stopped over there an experience full of good feeling, an evening of happy thoughts plus a lot of cheap entertainment to take their minds off the harsh realities of desert life. The problem was, unbeknownst to unprepared travelers, their `buckets’ had holes. In short, they just didn’t hold water for long. The outcome was sad, but predictable. Eventually the obstinate nomad was found sprawled out dead of thirst on the burning sands of the unforgiving desert. He was found clutching an empty bucket with a cracks in its bottom. What a deceitful bucket!
What Does This Parable Mean?That parable is played out every day in evangelical churches. I heard a story like it just the other day that prompted this article. I never cease to be amazed at the dry souls who come upon a well and blame the drawers when they won’t even bring a bucket. Refusing to do their due diligence in carrying on their Christian lives, they always wind up with some deceitful substitute. They are forever drifting from church to church in hope of finding some alternative to the standard bucket from which they can scrounge just enough water to cool their burning tongues. In case you may not be totally tracking with our metaphor, let me fill in the blanks. In this parable the oasis stands for the churches holding forth the truth, the water of life. The drawers represent the shepherds or teachers of the churches. The “bucket” symbolizes 1) our appropriation of all those means of grace that God has appointed for stimulating our maturation in Christ and 2) our humble submission in those areas of faith and obedience where the Spirit of God is dealing with our consciences. Now a bucket that won’t hold water symbolizes anything in the way of cheap and easy substitutes that Christians rely on for an artificial life support system when their souls are arid and languishing.
Examples of Common Swiss Cheese BucketsA deceitful bucket might be those false highs that people seek in their addiction to transfusions of cheap emotionalism. How sad to watch parched souls trek from one mega-event to another trying to wring enough moisture from the damp rags of artificially whipped-up mass emotion, but never finding it in sufficient measure to sustain. What a deceitful bucket, this emotionalism! It is so short-lived. Easy come, easy go. Like the morning dew, it quickly evaporates from the soul the minute it faces the heat of the next day’s reality. Emotionalism always teases more than it satisfies. Another deceitful bucket is the intimacy trap. Intimacy with God is something we all should thirst for. But we need to bring a standard bucket. The problem today is a surfeit of religious hucksters out there who are selling defective buckets that won’t hold water. These shysters point the unwary in all the wrong directions; they con the naïve into trying their buckets by all the wrong benchmarks of quality. Today it sometimes seems half the Christian world has gone over the edge. Instead of seeking closeness with God in the biblically prescribed ways, the parched set out on religious Rand McNally (mis)adventures for relief. They travel every back road on the religious landscape in hopes of mystical encounters with God. Through these they expect God to become ‘real’ to them and to achieve a sense of intimacy with God that has always eluded them and left them unsatisfied. They are bored with biblical orthodoxy and enamored with the exotic and the sensational. They want something `more’ than they have so far found. They want to experience the ‘touch’ of God with a sense of theatre. They yearn for the truly dramatic to help them extend their weak roots and finally draw serious water. So where do they turn? They are allured by the possibility of speaking in other tongues, of witnessing “signs and wonders,” of experiencing visions, of hearing the very voice of God, of live encounters with angels, etc. Through these phenomena they seek a new plane of the presence and power of His Spirit. This is their idea of growing in the Lord!
Dramatic Experiences Do Not Always Mean a Leaky BucketNow let me emphasize that one should not scoff at the possibility of such mystical encounters. I for one will not put God in a man-made box. What He has done in the past, He is capable of doing in the present and future. Let us put no constraints on God’s activity that He refuses to put on Himself (e.g. there will be no repeat of a judgment by universal flood because God plainly said so). I myself have experienced the works and power of God in dramatic ways. So, unless His Word seems to disallow or discredit a certain activity, I for one will never be so presumptuous as to say it can never be. On the other hand, let me hasten to add that none of these phenomena were ever as routine or as available `on demand’ some today claim. Secondly, where these mystical experiences are alleged, I think when one investigates, neither the purported experiences nor the supposed witnesses stand up to close scrutiny much of the time. In short, whether one ascribes the bogus to overactive imaginations or self-serving fabrications, credibility problems are in no short supply with those who hang their hat on this sort of sensationalism.
A Mystical Encounter with God Does Not a Spiritual Giant MakeHowever, it is unnecessary to discredit their professed experiences in order to show the fallacy of putting too much stock in their spiritual significance. The truth is, even if one should encounter God in any of these modes, those experiences say little about the spiritual timbre or the intimacy of anyone involved. This is the larger point. To all those who make a big deal of such things, let both Balaam and his ass be our caveat here in making too much of these phenomena. You want to boast to me about your dreams, your visions, your voices in the night, your signs and wonders, your prophecies, your laugh-ins and your bark-ins? Going back to Balaam, need I remind anyone that God delighted in neither ass, though He appeared much more sympathetic with the four-legged one! Can we forget that the Holy Spirit even descended once upon the pathetic Saul so that he prophesied involuntarily? Yet Saul was a spiritual reject. So strange was that phenomenon (that is, Saul prophesying) that the episode later became a sort of byword or metaphor in Israel for all things wacky and weird. “Is Saul also among the prophets?” people would ask when two things seemed incongruent. And if you are one of those folk who think yourself (or others) a little special because of supernatural experiences, real or imagined, you may be humbled perhaps to consider the resume of one crowd the Lord will condemn at the final judgment. Among those who will not ‘make the cut’ will be a class of religious charlatans. Jesus anticipates their defense. They will plead that in Jesus’ name they performed many spectacular signs and wonders. They will claim that in His very name they cast out demons and even performed miracles? (Matt. 7:22-23) It is striking that the Lord does not accuse them of lying. Significantly their claims go unchallenged. Despite that, they are dismissed out of hand as spiritual frauds. They are excluded from the Kingdom and cast into outer darkness.
A Reality Check for the “Super Spiritual”What exposed their hypocrisy? What proved they were bags of religious gas in a three-piece suits? The fact that walk and talk did not match up. At best, they were all sentiment and no commitment. For all their religious activity and talk of `faith’ and ‘power evangelism’, their faith was still-born. They are waved off into the black night of a Christless eternity as interlopers. “Depart from Me! I never knew you, you workers of iniquity.” Do you get it? Do you see how there is too much ado about nothing? Do you see how much bogus mileage a lot of fraudulent characters are getting from our false standards of religious reality? Can you see how foolish it is to accredit people’s power with God on the basis of these professions of supernatural works and experiences? Can you see what a deceitful proposition it is to seek intimacy with God through these mystical means? That is what I mean by our benchmarks for the presence and power of the Spirit being so messed up today!
What This Means for UsWe Christians desperately need some reality therapy in these matters. Somehow we have get off these fruitless trips in search of emotional hits and microwave intimacy. A good place to start, I think, is by accepting more responsibility for the fouled conditions of our hearts and the aridness of our souls. The real source of our spiritual aridity is that we fail at certain points to do our part in the equation of Christian growth. We don’t bring a bucket. Instead, many folk keep running from one bizarre venue to another looking for a shot of cheap grace that will temporarily simulate the effect of closeness to God but will by no means sustain it any length of time. People are forever coming to the wells, bringing at best cracked cups and demanding that we drawers fill them and then they blame us when their leaky buckets won’t hold water. Long ago the Apostle Peter exploded the fallacy of such spiritual blameshifting. God, he reminds us in his second epistle, “has given us everything necessary for life and godliness.” (1:2) The water is there. What’s usually missing is a sound bucket. The day our Christian logic catches up to this proposition, we will be miles ahead. When, oh, when will this sick generation wake up to what historic, biblical Christianity has known all along, namely, that intimacy with God. . .the experience of the presence and power of God is always found on the same homey path? Where is it that one draws near to God? In the strait and narrow way. In the way that is well lit and well marked: Trust and obey. There is the way. There is where we meet God. There is where the saints have always had close encounters with His presence and power. God appears to His people along the rugged trails of simple dependence and all-out surrender. God is met on the narrow ledges of radical righteousness. God reaches out to us on the steep inclines of stubborn purity. Trust and obey day after day. That’s God’s way. There is where we encounter God. There is where God becomes real to us—and where we become real to God.
The Simple TruthLet’s get it straight. The person who knows God. . . the person who is closest to God. . . the person in whom God delights. . . the person with whom God meets is a person who simply walks with God. . . a person who has a pure heart and clean hands. That is exactly what Jesus was saying in his beatitudes when He said:
“Blessed are the pure in heart; they shall see God.”Not just by and by, but in a spiritual sense, right here and now. Bring a bucket to the well. . . bring a bucket of holiness and righteousness. . . bring a bucket of trust. . . bring a bucket of obedience and God will fill it. The life of faith isn’t sustained by redundant emotional fixes. True, Christian feelings may be temporarily stirred in a high energy atmosphere of musical excellence and mass excitement. We don’t begrudge anybody that religious stimulation. Still, if all that happens amounts to little more than a jump start of our religious emotions, that ‘juice’ is not going to carry us very far. It adds up to little more than a spiritual sedative. The elevation of Christian feelings is no substitute for the elevation of the Christian walk, a distinction unfortunately that seems lost on far too many. Feeling holy thoughts is a far cry from functioning on a holy plane. Emotional highs by themselves are buckets that won’t hold water. Nor is a life of faith sustained (or signified, I might add) by hearing voices, seeing visions, or witnessing signs and wonders. But what is important and more certainly indicative of the presence of His Spirit is something else altogether. God is present in power only with those who love Him, serve Him, draw upon His grace in faith for their sustenance, fear Him, cleaving to that which is good, abhorring that which is evil, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, strive for moral purity, and are fervent and steadfast in the work of the Lord. There’s the standard bucket with the biblical seal of approval. Don’t leave home without it. Otherwise you can’t hold water. Those dry souls who insist on communing with God in sweet fellowship on cheaper terms are forever doomed to frustration—the evaporation effect. Remember: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Get a bucket, I say. God will fill it.