In the last chapter, I discussed the problem of Ego—that is, the belief that we are God, the idolatry of self. As you might expect, such a belief is not very conducive to hearing God’s wisdom. If we want to become receptive to God’s Wisdom, we need to do something about Ego. In this Chapter, I am going to explore different approaches the Bible has recommended for dealing with Ego.
THE STORY OF DOG
My first lesson on the relationship between Ego and wisdom occurred when I was a young child, perhaps six. My family had left the city for a visit to friends in the suburbs. When we arrived, I met Dog. I don’t remember Dog’s name, just that it was a large friendly dog that loved six-year-old boys. We immediately hit it off. My parents’ friends asked if I would like to take Dog out for a walk. I was delighted.
They put Dog on a leash and took me outside. They explained that their house was on a large circle. I couldn’t get lost, they said, if I stayed on the circle. Eventually I would return to the house. I wasn’t paying attention. I was looking at Dog.
Dog and I started on the walk. After ten minutes, I decided it was time to go back. Then I had a frightening thought. I had no idea what their house looked like. There were at least fifty houses on the circle. Which was the one we had come from? I didn’t even know the names of the people we were visiting. How would I find the right house? I was lost!
I needed to remember every detail about the house. It was green. Yes, I was sure it was green. And it was two stories. It was a green two-story house. I could do this.
Dog and I walked around the circle. I didn’t see any green two-story houses. The only green houses were one story. And the only two-story houses were white. But it was definitely a green two-story house. Could I have wandered off the circle?
After a half hour, I was starting to feel desperate. I had walked around and around the circle. Dog was getting tired. I was tired too, and scared. What was I going to do?
I decided to let Dog lead us to the right house. I would walk around the whole circle once again, letting Dog go wherever Dog wanted. I would trust Dog to find the house. I would have to trust Dog. I had no choice.
We went halfway around the circle, and Dog showed no obvious interest in any of the houses. Suddenly Dog started veering toward a house. But Dog was wrong. The house Dog was going to was a white single-story house, not a green two-story house. I tried to pull Dog. I was almost crying. Dog was my last hope, and Dog was failing me.
Maybe Dog was heading to one of Dog’s friends. Maybe somebody at this house would recognize Dog and could direct me to the right house. It was a long shot, but I had nothing to lose. I nervously followed Dog’s lead.
As we got closer, Dog got more excited. Dog barked, and the front door opened. There on the other side of the door were my parents and their friends. “Did you have a nice walk?” they asked. “You must have been having fun, because we watched you walk past the house at least five times.”
The more we think we know, the less we are open to God’s wisdom, whether that wisdom is expressed through a dream, through the I Ching, or through a dog’s gentle tug. It is the meek that shall inherit the earth, not the brilliant.
DISCERNMENT AND EGO
In the last chapter, I discussed how God calls out to us in the events of our lives. In this chapter, I am going to discuss what we must do to hear God’s call. Hearing God’s call is one way to describe discernment. In the Christian tradition, we understand discernment as the ability to understand which path God means for us to follow. We might think of God as a river of love and ourselves as floating down that river. Discernment then is our ability to see the currents, understand how they flow, and choose a direction that is in accord with the river’s rhythms and our unique boat.
We need God. We need God because God is our most fundamental essence. Genesis tells us:
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
We are the reflection of God. A reflection without that which it reflects is empty. We don’t need a new car or a larger house or the latest technological toy to be complete, not really. What we need is to feel grounded in God, the God that is our core being.
God loves us. All the great religions teach this simple truth. Because God loves us, God needs us. God needs us because a love without a beloved is a hollow existence. The Bible is the continuous story of God reaching out to us, beseeching us to open our hearts to God’s love, pleading with us to simply accept that we are the beloveds.
We need God, and God needs us. Together, the human and the divine are complete. Separated, they are incomplete.
When we live in accord with the divine image, we are fulfilled. When we can discern what it means to be God’s beloved, we are exalted. What makes discernment difficult is Ego. In the last chapter I described Ego (with a capital E) as that destructive belief that we are God. I contrasted this to ego (written with a small e), which is the healthy knowledge that we are beloved by God. Ego doesn’t want us to be in accord with God’s image. Ego wants God to be in accord with its own distorted and twisted self-image.
Wisdom is ego’s friend and Ego’s enemy. The ego knows we can be complete only when we are in relationship with God. The Ego tells us God is irrelevant; our completeness depends only on our own accomplishments and acquisitions. The ego tells us to turn to God to discern which path we should take. The Ego knows which path it wants and doesn’t give a hoot for God’s opinion on the subject. We all have both Ego and ego giving us advice. We must choose which we will listen to.
Ego will do anything to get its way. It will cheat, steal, and lie. Ego convinced Eve that knowing good from evil would make her as good as God (even worse, that she was capable of knowing good from evil). Ego convinced Cain that his brother deserved to be murdered for winning God’s favor. Ego convinced Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery. Ego whispers in each of our ears and tells us about the nice things we should have, the respect we have earned, the social status that is our birthright. The last thing Ego wants is discernment. Would you?
My walk with Dog was my first experience with the battle between Ego and discernment. I was sure I was on the right path; I knew where I was going. Ego told me so! Only when I let go of all confidence in self (and therefore of Ego) was I able to trust and follow Dog to show me the right path. And Dog did! Just as God will show us the correct path if we can get Ego to shut up long enough to let God get in a word edgewise.
WISDOM VERSUS EGO
How do we get rid of Ego? Well, to start with, we don’t want to “get rid” of Ego. We just want it to learn to behave, to show a little humility (if that isn’t too much to ask of Ego). Ego is like a spoiled child. It has had its way for so long it thinks it can do whatever it wants. Ego needs to grow up and learn some manners. Ego needs to become ego.
Wisdom uses every tool at her disposal to work around Ego’s subversive influence.
Wisdom uses our dreams. When we are sleeping, the Ego is at rest and is unable to block Wisdom’s voice. The Bible contains many stories of Wisdom speaking in dreams. Wisdom promised Jacob a land of plenty in a dream. Wisdom bestowed upon Solomon “an understanding mind” in a dream. Wisdom told Joseph to accept the baby Jesus as his son in a dream.
There is one problem with dreams. We eventually awake. When we do, we once again fall under the spell of Ego. Ego tells us we can’t remember our dreams or the dreams don’t make sense or that they are the result of indigestion. And Wisdom’s voice is lost.
Another tool Wisdom uses to deal with Ego is humiliation. This may sound cruel, but often that is the only way to deal with Ego. That’s what happened to me with Dog. I gave Ego every chance to get us home. Eventually, even Ego had to admit it was lost and scared. Only in the face of Ego’s humiliation could I turn myself over to Dog.
EGO AND MOSES
The Bible includes many stories of Ego being brought to its knees so that discernment can occur. One such story is that of Moses. Exodus 3 tells the story of Moses’s discernment to lead the Israelites out of bondage. It starts with the familiar story of the burning bush.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”
The story continues with God telling Moses of his new calling, Moses telling God all the reasons why he is the wrong person for this calling, and God responding to each of his objections in turn. Anybody who has gone through a true discernment will find this a painfully familiar dialogue.
But while Exodus chapter 3 tells the story of Moses’s discernment, Exodus chapter 2 tells the less familiar story of Moses’s Ego preparation.
Moses is born in enslavement. The Israelites are captive and brutalized by the Egyptian pharaoh. In a particularly cruel decree, the pharaoh orders all the newborn Israelite boys to be murdered (a story that we will hear echoed in the Jesus birth story). But Moses’s mother devises a plan to save him. She places him in a basket and hides it in the river reeds. The baby is found by the pharaoh’s daughter, who brings up the child as her son, the grandson of the pharaoh.
We can assume that being the pharaoh’s grandchild is a pretty cushy gig. You have the best of everything in a world in which most people have very little. You are powerful in a world where most are powerless. You are respected in a world where most are treated as property. The Ego is in hog heaven. No burning bushes are going to disturb this frame of mind.
Then something happens. The grown Moses sees an Egyptian striking one of the Israelites. Moses kills the tormentor. Moses is seen, and, fearing for his life, he flees his privileged world.
He ends up in a foreign land, where he marries a priest’s daughter. This is not a Jewish priest; this is a priest of pagan gods. Soon Moses is tending the priest’s sheep. Moses has gone from a life of plenty and comfort to a life of austerity and hardship. Moses has lost his roots. He is in a land of strange people, strange customs, and strange gods. He is cut off from everything he knows and loves. What few possessions he now has he carries in a sack. Moses is at the lowest point in his life. He is miserable, decrepit, and powerless. And in this state of shattered Ego, Moses is able to see the burning bush and hear the voice of God. With Ego out of the way, discernment can begin.
EGO AND JONAH
The Bible story that wins the Oscar for Ego Annihilation is the story of Jonah. This story starts in Jonah 1 innocuously enough:
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
Jonah’s Ego is not exactly thrilled with this assignment. His Ego convinces him he doesn’t need to listen to God, so he catches the next boat going anyplace but Nineveh. God is not amused and sends a storm that threatens to sink the boat. The crew senses a rat is on board, so they cast lots to see who is to blame. Jonah’s name comes up in bright neon lights.
Jonah has his first inkling that maybe this wasn’t his best idea. He agrees to be thrown overboard in an attempt to appease God and end the storm. The crew happily obliges, and the storm ends.
Now Jonah is swimming around in the depths of the ocean, close to drowning. I suspect he is having a few words with Ego. Just when he thinks things can’t get any worse, a giant fish comes up and sucks Jonah in. Now Jonah is in total despair, sitting in the stinking belly of the fish in total darkness. In desperation, he repents to God. God hears Jonah and causes the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.
This time, Ego has learned its lesson and is keeping its mouth shut. And Jonah’s career as a prophet to Nineveh begins. Which, it turns out, is a good thing for Nineveh. Jonah is able to turn Nineveh away from its evil ways, and God saves the city.
These are some of the tools Wisdom uses to speak to us: dreams, chance events, and humiliation.
But what if we want to ask her advice? The traditional answer is prayer. But discernment through prayer is hampered by Ego, which has its own agenda. We need look no further than the political arena to see how easily Ego can twist prayer to its own self-serving ends.
BIBLICAL DISCERNMENT TOOLS
The Bible has a suggestion here. The Bible points to the use of what I call Egoless discernment tools. They are Egoless because they are designed to eliminate, or at least minimize, the corrosive influence of Ego. They are discernment tools because they are tools through which one can discern God’s Wisdom. For the sake of brevity, I will call these discernment tools.
Discernment tools work by interpreting Wisdom’s answers through events over which Ego has no control. Ego tells us these events are “random” and not to be trusted. The Bible tells us these events are not random, but directed by God.
The first example of a discernment tool in the Bible is described in Exodus, in the elaborate plans for creating a “breastpiece of judgment.”
In the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the Lord; thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the Israelites on his heart before the Lord continually.
We don’t know exactly what kind of agents Urim and Thummim were or how they were used, but they were clearly used as agents to discern God’s will. For example, in Samuel we read:
When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, not by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.
—1 Samuel 28:6
And in Ezra, we read:
The governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until there should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim.
Another common discernment tool used in the Bible is the drawing of lots. We have already seen one such example, in the story of Jonah. Remember Jonah, and how he tried to escape God’s call in a boat?
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god…The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.
Lots must have been used frequently. Proverb 16 specifically tells us that God speaks through lots: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from Yahweh.”
The use of lots to hear Wisdom was not limited to the Hebrew Bible. In Acts 1, we read how an apostle replacement was found for Judas, the traitor.
“So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
Both Urim/Thummim and lots are examples of physical apparatuses being used as discernment tools. But other types of discernment tools are also described in the Bible. For example, human actions, as long as they are removed from the influence of the observer’s Ego, can serve as discernment tools. We see an example in the story of how a wife was found for Abraham’s son, Isaac.
Abraham wanted Isaac to marry a woman from Abraham’s birth land, so he sent one of his servants to find a suitable wife. When the servant arrived in the city of Nahor, he camped out by a well at the time of day when young women would come to water the camels. He then set up his plan to find a suitable wife.
And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder. The girl was very fair to look upon, a virgin whom no man had known. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please let me sip a little water from your jar.” “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.” So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful.
—Genesis 24: 12–21
The events of nature are used as discernment tools. Gideon used such a discernment tool to ask God if he was truly chosen to save Israel:
Then Gideon said to God, “In order to see whether you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said, I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing-floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said.” And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water.
When we need to ask God specific questions, the Bible repeatedly suggests the use of discernment tools. The main advantage of these tools is that they are resistant to the manipulations of Ego.
But Ego is a crafty little devil. Since Ego is unable to influence the outcome of these tools, Ego resorts to the next best option: attacking the tools themselves. They are unreliable, not scientific, the result of random chance, un-Christian. If all other arguments fail, these discernment tools are the work of Satan. Ego loves Satan, whom it frequently calls upon to deflect attention from itself. But the Bible tells us a very different story.
DISCERNMENT VERSUS FORTUNE TELLING
It is important to understand the difference between a discernment tool and a fortune-telling device. Fortune telling (that is, predicting the future) is specifically prohibited by The Bible. For example, in Deuteronomy we read:
No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord.
There is a good reason fortune telling, or divination, is prohibited by the Bible. Even God does not “know” the future. God guides the future, but even God can only go so far. We have free choice, and the choices we and others make in part determine the future.
Discernment tools are not used for predicting the future; they are used for asking Wisdom’s help in laying the groundwork for the future God wants. Whereas fortune telling is prohibited by the Bible, discernment tools are encouraged and used throughout both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.
A discernment tool by itself has no power. Only God can breathe life into a discernment tool. But it seems God wants to communicate with us. The Bible tells us that as long as we approach God from an ego-centric perspective (as God’s beloved) God will use these discernment tools. It is when we approach God from an Egocentric perspective (as God’s superior) that these tools become barren, as Saul discovered when Yahweh would not answer him “either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets” (1 Sam. 28:6).
We see, then, a three-way relationship between the discernment tool, the discerner, and God. The discernment tool must be one that is truly Ego free. The discerner must be one who is truly receptive to God’s wisdom. And God must be willing to speak. But God is always reaching out to us. If we aren’t hearing God, the problem is on our side.
How can we be sure that the discernment tool is truly Ego free? This is more difficult than it sounds. The Ego has a way of creating “heads, I win/tails, you lose” outcomes. The best way to be sure the discernment tool is “fair” to God’s Wisdom is to use one that is well understood and has withstood the test of time. This makes the I Ching an attractive candidate, since it has been studied by some of the greatest scholars in history and has been in continuous use for thousands of years.
But the I Ching is much more than a discernment tool; it is a complete framework for understanding God’s wisdom. It is your guide to the mystical space in each of us that Genesis calls the image of God. In this space, God calls you to wholeness. The I Ching can help you hear this call.