Part 7 of the series:
When Faith Doesn’t Work
by Don Enevoldsen
Growing up in the country, I had many childhood experiences city kids would never think of, such as milking cows and pulling eggs out from under squawking, and sometimes pecking, chickens. I also had rules that most kids wouldn’t understand. For example, my dad once clearly ordered me, “Don’t touch the fence.”
I didn’t understand it, either, at first. What a silly rule. “Don’t climb through the fence,” I could understand. I would then be on the side of the fence with large cows who might trample me. “Don’t climb over the fence,” I could understand. It was barbed wire and I could tear my clothes or, worse, my skin. Either of those rules would have made sense. But those weren’t the rule. The rule was, “Don’t touch the fence.” I had an external directive, which I could choose to follow or ignore.
I trusted my father, so if he said not to touch the fence, then my interests would be served by not touching the fence. Best not to ignore the rule, even if it didn’t make sense.
The obsessive curiosity that drives much of my study today, and irritates many around me, began early. So naturally I was not completely satisfied with the rule, even if I was willing to follow it. Therefore I asked, “Why?”
“Because you will get shocked.”
Well, that cleared things up. It was an electric fence. My dad had just installed it. The purpose was to provide a big enough electrical shock to keep cows from trying to get through it. If the current was strong enough that a cow recoiled in pain, just think what it would feel like for a little kid. Now I not only had a rule, I understood why the rule was there. I had learned the truth about electrical shocks. They would be unpleasant.
The one drawback to the rule was that I had never felt electricity like that. I had no idea what an electrical shock was like. All I could think of was the tiny shocks you get when you shuffle your feet across a carpet and touch somebody. How bad could it be? The word “shocked” sounded like something I wouldn’t like, but I didn’t really know beyond what I was told. It was explained as an intense, painful, jolting sensation. I would have to be satisfied with that intellectual explanation.
As you can guess, a day came when I touched the fence. Not in rebellion, but by accident. I was near it and stumbled as I walked by. Instinctively, I grabbed the wire to steady myself.
In an instant, the rule went from, “Don’t touch the fence,” to “DON’T TOUCH THE FENCE!!!”
In an instant, the intellectual understanding of, “You will get shocked,” was transformed into the experiential understanding, “DON’T TOUCH THE FENCE!!!”
In an instant, the truth of, “an intense, painful, jolting sensation,” became, “DON’T TOUCH THE FENCE!!!”
Experience is one element in changing core beliefs. Unfortunately, experience doesn’t always give an immediately comprehensive picture of the truth. A year or so after my electrical initiation, I forgot the experience. I hadn’t touched the fence in a long time. Not all of our fences were electric anyway, just the outside perimeter. I climbed through the other fences frequently, so the habit of touching other fences was well established.
One day I was playing in the field. We lived on 140 acres, which gave plenty of room and terrain for all kinds of imaginative exercise. That particular day, I was wearing my U.S. Cavalry hat and toting around a toy rifle made out of metal. I was hot on the trail of some renegade Apaches hiding out in the Badlands. (Those of you who know something of the history of various American Indian tribes will recognize how ignorant I was as a little kid. But then most of my Western education came from Rawhide and Gunsmoke.) To follow their trail, I had to go through a fence. Without thinking, I grabbed the wire with my left hand to push it down far enough to climb through.
The moment I wrapped my hand around the wire, I realized what I had done. Wrong fence. The thought instantly flashed through my mind, “DON’T TOUCH THE FENCE.” But it was too late. My hand was already there.
To my surprise, however, there was no shock. As I tried to process this new and unexpected information, all within the time frame of one second or so, I neglected to let go.
That’s when I learned another bit of information about electric fences. They are designed to pulsate. Rather than a continual electrical charge, they send out a pulse about once every second. The power surges for just a moment, then stops. The charge is strong enough to freeze your muscles, so it is very difficult to let go of the fence while you are being shocked. The break between pulses gives you an opportunity to let go.
I had grabbed the wire between pulses, and the process of suddenly realizing what I had done, then experiencing no shock, derailed my reactions. I thought, “Hey, wait, I touched the fence and nothing—“
That’s as far as I got before the next pulse. One second isn’t actually very long, so you can appreciate how fast I was actually thinking. And how slow I was moving.
At that moment, I learned something else about electricity. The closest point to the power is not necessarily the point of pain. My left hand held the wire, but my right hand held the metal toy rifle. The electricity went through me into the metal and then to the ground. I felt the shock in my right hand, not my left.
I immediately thought, “DON’T TOUCH THE—wait, that’s not the fence. Why is my rifle shocking me?”
Naturally, at the end of the pulse, I quickly let go of the rifle. Actually I shoved it away from me like it was a swarm of yellow jackets (see Part 1). In my surprise and consternation, I did nothing with my left hand. It hadn’t been shocked, after all.
Then came another pulse, and I remembered, “DON’T TOUCH THE FENCE.”
About one second later, I let go of the fence, too.
I trust you get the point. The rule was originally a guideline imposed on me from the outside. Because I trusted my dad, I made some effort to follow it, even though I didn’t understand it. With his explanation of the reason for the rule, I gained a conscious belief in the need to follow the rule, but it was still only a rule, not a part of my core belief system.
The conscious belief was not enough, however, to keep me completely respectful of the electricity. With the actual experience of a shock, I had my belief system changed at its core. With my second experience of electricity, the core belief was not only reinforced, it was clarified and refined.
This story loosely illustrates the difference between the Old Covenant and the New. God gave the Law, an external rule of right living that required much time and effort to incorporate into life. It was our guardian in a sense, to lead us to truth (Galatians 3:24). It was also useless for “restraining sensual indulgence” (Colossians 2:23). Even though we understood what the Law required, we could not get ourselves to follow it consistently.
The New Covenant did not change anything of the Old Covenant. Jesus made that clear when he assured his disciples that he did not come to abolish any part of it (Matthew 5:17-18). What made the New Covenant different was that it was internalized.
“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
When the Law was an external regulation, we had to learn truth the hard way. We had to be coerced and compelled to follow it, because no matter how hard we tried, the external Law could never overrule the internal core belief. We lived according to our belief, or according to our faith. Faith and belief are identical.
We had to be told, “Know the Lord.” Since we didn’t have experience with him, someone else had to explain him to us, telling us what he is like. It’s a lot of work for remarkably little change.
With confession of the truth, however, we gain understanding. That is, we intellectually begin to understand it.
When we experience the truth, however, things change. No longer does anyone need to explain the truth to us in order for us to comprehend it. I now know for myself. I’ve experienced it. I’ve lived it. I don’t need a rule anymore for me to follow the rule. I understood the electricity because my father explained it to me, but once I touched that fence, no one ever again had to tell me not to touch it. That rule was written on my heart. Permanently.
Of course, this all assumes that you actually want to change your core beliefs. Many people intentionally touch the fence—over and over and over. Their flawed core belief system tells them that they deserve the pain, or that they have no real choice in the matter. They have to touch it. That’s their lot in life. Some are convinced that their life depends on getting through the fence, even when there is no reason to. Some will touch it just to prove they don’t have to follow any rules. They have no sense of identity outside of the rebel.
Some will use their knowledge of electricity to impose on others. Once I saw how the sensation of an electrical shock moved to the end contact in the chain, I proposed an experiment. A friend held my sister’s hand. I took his hand. Then, with my other hand, I grabbed the fence. My sister got the shock.
I’m much nicer now, and my sister does still speak to me. The point is that my core beliefs have steadily changed over the years because I have allowed many of my experiences, both good and bad, to engrave more and more of the grace and the truth of the New Covenant on my heart. But I’ll understand if you back away from me when we’re near electricity.
Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.