Years ago during my days in graduate studies I worked as an aide in a hospital psychiatric unit. I wasn’t trained in the field so I had to learn on the job how some of the patients struggled to distinguish reality from fantasy.
One young man, for instance, was by all appearances bright and settled but he struggled with frightening impressions. Once he came to me during unit visiting hours very upset and asked me to look at the back of his head.
“Am I bleeding?”
“No,” I answered, “you’re fine.”
“Oh good,” he whispered as he relaxed. “Do you see that man over there? He has a pistol and he just shot me in the back of my head!” This young patient really believed he was mortally wounded and he wanted me to examine the wound.
“No, you’re okay.” I assured him again. “We don’t allow anyone to come on the unit with a gun. That man is Karen’s husband, here to visit her, and he didn’t shot you. You’re fine!” My frightened friend let out his breath, clearly relieved. My reassurance made all the difference.
As weird as this story may sound it really occurred and wasn’t a laughing matter. The man knew his impressions needed to be tested with feedback he could trust. His fears were real and my emotional first aid was also real.
The hospital work ended once I earned my degree, but the work of distinguishing reality from fantasy is ongoing. I’m often reminded of those lessons.
Ironically most people today quietly view Christians as out of touch. In their eyes we’re preoccupied with religious fantasies: all a bit crazy for claiming to believe in a God who doesn’t actually exist. So the more religious we are, the crazier we are.
But the reverse is true. They live in the fantasy world and need to face reality. Non-Christians think they can live without God. Or—if they enjoy the language of religion—with a boutique god of their own making. And with this they try to manage life as free agents: deciding what they want to make of life; how to reach those ambitions; and who they want as partners in the process. They are the masters of their own fate. Or so they believe.
So we need to invite our self-sufficient friends to notice a repeated aphorism in the Bible: “And then they will know that I am the LORD.” This illuminating and potentially frightening refrain is found in Ezekiel, in Isaiah, and elsewhere. It promises a future humility for all who think they can succeed in playing God.
We who are Christians, on the other hand, can relax in a world filled with fantastic thinking. By abandoning narcissism we discover the joy of treating others as more important than ourselves. We’re free to give thanks in everything, even when we experience losses or disasters. We know that God is watching over us, caring for us in his greater reality—a reality anticipated from before we were created. We live by faith rather than by sight.
Yet the challenge is greater today than ever before. Digital rearrangements of photos and movies make the contrast between fantasy and reality more and more deceptive and confusing.
We also have reality television that is mostly unreal; virtual relationships – instead of natural encounters – with scores of friends who come to us mostly by texts and Instagrams. As a result people sit next to others, ignoring them while they build connections with screen images. The process is defined by the severe limits of a mobile device and turn into self-marketing exercises: recreating one’s own image for others to admire.
But that’s not the way God made us to live. We’re meant to walk together and to talk face-to-face; to be weak and clumsy and occasionally clever. We’re created by God to be inadequate—to need what others offer us—but also to be adequate in ways we can offer to others. Life is meant to be tangible and sweaty. And the biggest reality is that apart from Jesus we can do nothing.
We can, of course, pretend to do lots of things. But when we all eventually learn that he is the LORD we will see how much nonsense we were involved in. Psalms 37 and 73 are reminders of this. And only what we do in faith will endure into eternity. The rest will be assigned to flames.
So what is ultimate reality? Just this: that God the Father, Son, and Spirit created us for himself. And for all who come to him empty of self, reality arrives. Relationships with Christ as an ultimate touchstone have come to the living Truth. He, in turn, reveals his Father to us as the source of life, love, and meaning. And all of us who discover this will live happily ever after.
That’s the one true story. Everything else is a fantasy.