One of the things I love about A Course in Miracles is its reinterpretation of biblical passages. The Course is full of biblical quotes and subtle allusions to the Bible. Sometimes these references simply affirm the original meaning of a biblical passage. Most of the time, however, a reinterpretation of the passage is implied. In just a few words the Course can dramatically reshape the traditional meaning of a well-known Bible verse.
For those of us who were brought up within Christianity, these reinterpretations can be both healing and challenging. Healing, because we have probably felt scarred by some aspects of our biblical heritage, especially some of its images of a frightening God. Challenging, because the Course, in its vision of a wholly loving God, takes us into realms of thought that are decidedly non-traditional.
Everything I am talking about can be seen in the following passage from the Course:
How long, O Son of God, will you maintain the game of sin? Shall we not put away these sharp edged children's toys? How soon will you be ready to come home? Perhaps today? There is no sin. Creation is unchanged. Would you still hold return to Heaven back? How long, O holy Son of God, how long? (W-pII.4.5)
Students of the Bible will immediately recognize the biblical allusion here. It is an allusion to the ancient cry from the Psalms: "How long, O Lord?"
Before we see what the Course has done with this biblical phrase, let's look at its original meaning. When I hear this line I always think of a scene from Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth. Roman soldiers have just visited the town of Nazareth and taken what food and water they need, rudely treating the villagers in the process and reminding them all how much they hate Roman rule. After the soldiers leave, a young Zealot drops to his knees in anguish, lifts his face and cries, "How long, O Lord?" The meaning is clear: How long until You deliver us from this oppression?
This reflects the way the phrase is used in the Psalms. Here are a couple of examples:
How long wilt Thou forget me, O Lord? How long wilt Thou hide Thy face from me? (Psalm 13:1 KJV)
How long, Lord? Wilt Thou hide Thyself for ever? Shall Thy wrath burn like fire? (Psalm 89:46 KJV)
The sense I get from these passages is this: How long will it be before You answer my prayers and deliver me from these punishing circumstances? We all feel this way at times, maybe most of the time. This feeling is probably one of the more natural religious sentiments there is. Yet there are three assumptions inherent in this sentiment that I want to focus on, because the Course's allusion to this phrase subtly reverses all three.
First, "How long, O Lord?" assumes that God is responsible for our miserable condition. He is the One Who put us here in this cruel world. He, in some sense, is responsible for all the perils that beset us, if only because He refuses to take them away. Second, the cry assumes that our human predicament is absolutely real. It is deadly serious. Third, it assumes that we are yearning for salvation, crying out to God for it, but He is turning a deaf ear.
Now let's return to our passage from the Course and see what it does with this ancient, heart-wrenching cry. The Course turns this phrase completely on its head. Instead of "How long, O Lord?" it says, "How long, O Son of God?" In the Course, we are the Son of God. Thus, instead of the question being directed at God, it is directed at us.
As the paragraph proceeds, we can sense that the first assumption behind our cry—the assumption that God is responsible for the human condition—is being overturned. This is especially clear in the lines that immediately precede our passage:
The Son of God may play he has become a body, prey to evil and to guilt, with but a little life that ends in death. But all the while his Father shines on him, and loves him with an everlasting Love which his pretenses cannot change at all. (W-pII.4.4:3 4)
This passage refers to the very condition from which we want salvation. Ultimately, we want to be delivered from the condition in which we are "a body, prey to evil and to guilt, with but a little life that ends in death." That is why we hope for Heaven, isn't it? Yet this passage says that God didn't put us in this situation. We did. We are playing that we have become a vulnerable, beleaguered, short-lived body. It is not God's creation that put us here; it is our play.
This also overturns the second assumption behind the cry "How long, O Lord?"—the assumption that we are stuck in a genuinely real predicament. Instead, says the passage from the Course, it is just a game. We are only playing that we are trapped in a body on a cruel planet, separate from God. One of the Course's more radical teachings is that our lives in this world are not real at all. They are just a self-generated dream of alienation from God. They are just the projection of our belief that we can live apart from our Source. The practical implication is that our situation here is not so deadly serious. If, in the middle of a nightmare, you suddenly realized it is just a dream, wouldn't that change your whole perspective on your situation? That is exactly what the Course wants us to do in our waking nightmares.
Our existence in time and space is just a game. Yet this game is a dark one indeed. The passage calls it "the game of sin," and says we play it with "sharp-edged children's toys." "Sharp-edged," of course, implies that, being clumsy children, we can easily hurt ourselves with these dangerous toys. But what are they? I think we can find them in this line we already examined: "The Son of God may play he has become a body, prey to evil and to guilt, with but a little life that ends in death." Our toys, then, are the body, evil, guilt, and death. We normally think of these things as realities that exercise oppressive power over us, yet they are merely "sharp-edged" toys with which we play the game of being separate from our Father.
And this leads to the overturning of our cry's third assumption: that we are calling out for salvation, but God is not listening. The implication of this passage is that God is not refusing to save us. Rather, we are refusing "to come home." Why? The reason we "still hold return to Heaven back" is that we are playing the "game of sin." When you really think you have sinned, do you feel that you deserve to come home? That is the phenomenon this passage is touching on. We believe that we have made ourselves too sinful to ever return. In a secret place inside, we don't blame God for our miserable lot; in deepest shame, we blame ourselves. As a result, we may call to God for salvation, but we don't really mean it with our whole heart. That is why it seems like He is not listening; we are not really calling. Rather, He is calling and we are refusing to answer.
Now we are in a position to really appreciate this passage. For ages we have called to God in anguish, "How long, O Lord?" This assumes that we are sitting on this godforsaken rock where God cruelly deposited us, stuck in a real and horrible predicament, crying out to God to rescue us, while He turns a deaf ear.
The truth is something else entirely. The truth is that God is lovingly calling reluctant children home from play. If you look closely at the above passage, you can detect this image. You have a parental voice beckoning children to quit their game, put away their toys, and come home. (Even though this voice claims to be that of Jesus, not God, because the image is a parental one, we can hear it as if it were God's.) You can almost hear the voice of a mother calling her kids in for dinner: "How long are you going to stay out there playing?"
This is our actual situation. We are not begging an uncaring God to deliver us from the real mess He put us in. Rather, God is calling reluctant children home from play. And we refuse to come home because we play that we have made ourselves too sinful. Yet in this very scenario lies the solution: The whole thing is only a game. It's not real life. "There is no sin" means: You never corrupted your innocence because the world of sin was only a game. Thus, when we finally muster the courage to show up again at the back porch, weapons in hand, heads bowed in shame, our Father will gently laugh, and say, "Don't worry. You never really did it. You were just playing. You never lost your innocence. Come on back inside, children. I have a feast waiting for you."
Now we can appreciate the Course's words: "How long, O holy Son of God, how long?" For "how long" is in our hands, not God's. Nothing is holding us back; not our Father and not our own supposed sinfulness. We can return any time we choose. The door is standing open, waiting for us. All we need do is decide to put down our toys and walk in.
God is calling reluctant children home from play. I find this to be such a poignant and healing image. In all of our anguish for the lot God gave us, all of our anger at Him for not delivering us, all of our apparently unanswered prayer, the reality is that God has been lovingly calling us home from our dark game, and we have not responded—not really, not fully—because we forgot that it was only a game.
Imagine applying this to our troubles in this life. I'd like us to try doing that now. Think of a time when you felt yourself to be in a terrible predicament, and you wondered why God did this to you, or why He didn't deliver you. See yourself in that situation. Hear your feelings expressed in these words: "How long, O Lord?" Now read our passage again, as if these are His words in answer to your anguished cry. Read it slowly, applying it very personally to yourself. Really imagine that God is speaking it to you:
How long, O Son of God, will you maintain the game of sin [the game of an existence apart from Me]? Shall we not put away these sharp edged children's toys [the body, evil, guilt, death]? How soon will you be ready to come home [for you can come whenever you like]? Perhaps today? There is no sin [you only pretended to corrupt your innocence; it never really happened]. Creation is unchanged [your true nature is exactly as it has always been]. Would you still hold return to Heaven back [given that there is no stain on your soul to keep you away]? How long, O holy Son of God, how long?