Sometimes I’m late to notice things. That happened recently as I finally listened to the lyrics of a song I’ve heard hundreds of times. Both Sides Now, written by Joni Mitchell, is a song that has floated through my head off and on for years. My friend Matt Auten used to sing some Joni Mitchell stuff and that’s where I first heard it. Most recently it was the sound track to the initial Toy Story 4 teaser trailer. You can check the song and its amazing lyrics out on the video, but in a nutshell it’s a song about coming to a place of humility. Thinking that you know things, realizing that you were wrong, correcting your perception, only to finally arrive at a point where you acknowledge that life is a bit more complicated and nuanced than we often want to admit. Joni sees clouds, love, and life from one perspective, but as time goes on realizes that these beautiful things often come with darker sides that challenge what we would like to believe. In the end she is forced to admit that what she really knows of these things are her own illusions of what she thinks they are.
I’m no Joni Mitchell, but if I was I think I’d try to write one more verse to this song, focused on God. Because I think we go through periods in our life where we think we understand God, get confused by what we actually experience, and then, if we are wise, come to a point where we admit that there is more that we don’t know than we do know.
What I’ve seen in my own life I’ve seen in the lives of countless others. We enter this relationship with God with a rose coloured glasses view of what it might entail. It’s our divine equivalent to “ice cream castles in the air” or “every fairy tale comes real” in Mitchell’s words. But sooner or later we are confronted with a different side. God becomes this person who seems to be in our way, challenges our own plans, or seems to remain passive in areas we desperately want him to take action. Often in these times we are tempted to walk away from it all. We’ve seen God “from both sides now” and we aren’t sure we like what we have signed up for.
This a normal part of the spiritual life. There comes a day when we need to say we’ve looked at God from both sides, the good and hard, and still somehow, it’s God illusions that we recall. We all have our illusions of what we think God is, but until we let them go we can never begin to see and experience who God really is, not who we hope or wish Him to be. It’s at this point where people often leave the faith (or at least stop plugging into church) because they think this God thing isn’t working out the way they expected. The irony is that this is the point where we actually start making some progress. Our illusions of who God is and how He acts often have to be stripped away to make room for the true reality. Peter Enns, in his fascinating book The Sin of Certainty: Why God desires our trust more than our correct beliefs writes, “I don’t claim to have the answers for many of the things that challenge my faith, but this I do believe: I see these moments are invitations to leave my comfort zone and trust God from a place of childlike vulnerability, rather than from a position of power and authority. And yes, that can be unsettling, unnerving, and even frightening. Leaving home usually is, but I don’t think that trust in God is cultivated unless we do.” (Certainty, p. 139)
Mitchell leaves us looking at clouds, love, and life without much hope that we can ever really get it. But the Bible tells us that the best side to see God from is embodied in Jesus, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), reminding us that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” (Col. 2:9) The point is that in Jesus we can experience God in a relational way, a third side, and one that we are welcomed to experience and know over time. So if you’ve seen God from both sides now, don’t walk away. Let the illusions fall and move onto a third side, a relationship with Jesus. I can promise you that it will painfully strip all of your God illusions away, but it will give you something more solid and meaningful than you could ever imagine.