The Holy River of God

Going on eastwards with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. He said to me, ‘Mortal, have you seen this?’

Then he led me back along the bank of the river. As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on one side and on the other. He said to me, ‘This water flows towards the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes.  (Ezekiel 47:3-9, NRSV)

There is a river—it is the river of God.  It is the river of God’s holiness.  It runs broad and fast through the desert land of the world.  It doesn’t begin in the church, nor in the councils, nor in the books of order or discipline.  It doesn’t even begin with the bishop or the statements of doctrine.  And thankfully it doesn’t begin in any board or committees.  Whether there is a bishop or no bishop, the river still flows.  This river begins in the temple—the very heart of God—and flows freely throughout the land. Like any river, this river is always moving, always changing, and always life-giving.  

A river by definition moves.  It flows.  When a river stops moving, it ceases to be a river and turns into a stagnant swamp.  It becomes smelly and attracts only the mosquitos.  This river of holiness that flows from the very heart of God is always moving.  Those found within it will always be carried to places they did not expect, never stagnant, never arriving, and never stopped in the achievement of some particular level of growth or service.  

As well, a river by definition always changes.  From one year to the next, the banks of the river will wash away changing the contour and path of the river.  Over the course of time, the river will change in its course, and the scenery along the side will be changed by it.  Those found within its flow will also find they are always changing, never set in one particular path but dynamically adjusting to the circumstances about them.

A river is always life-giving.  Like the images from space of the Nile River, every river brings lush, green life along its edges—wherever it goes, life swarms.  It transforms the dry arid land into fruit bearing land that sustains life. Those found within it will bring the life-giving water to the crevices and arid places in the desolate and abandoned corners of the world. 

But this river is not of our creation.  Yet we may participate in it.  In fact our immersion in it adds to the flow and influence it carries as it brings life from the very heart of God to the dryness of the world. And it is into this river that, like Ezekiel, we are invited to participate.

Imagine the river with two parts: the banks made of dirt, which are the worldly dimensions of our own security, ambitions, agendas, and selfish plans; and secondly the water, which is the life-giving flow of God’s holy nature flowing from His very heart in vulnerable love through the world He seeks to restore.

River of God’s Holiness

Ezekiel is invited by the guide to leave the banks—the dirt, the sand—and come into the river of God’s holiness.  He accepts the invitation, as many of us do, and enters ankle deep.  He is in the river, no doubt.  But his feet remain firmly planted in the dirt at the bottom—like many who say yes to Jesus and who are without a doubt in the river of God.  But fearful of giving up too much, they remain in the shallows where their feet are firmly planted in the security of their own devising—their own agendas, plans, ambitions, and destiny.  There is no question that they are in the river. But also completely controlling their life.

The guide invites again.  And a second time Ezekiel accepts the invitation.  This time it is to go deeper.  Now the flow is up to his knees.  Deeper and more committed.  Perhaps for the Christ-follower this is a choice to take on newer responsibilities or deeper surrender.  The water begins to have more of an effect.  Like standing at the sea with waves crashing around your feet, soon the rushing water of the river begins to wash away the dirt from under your feet.  The erosion is the Spirit attempting to encourage total dependence and surrender to the flow of God’s holiness.  And as the dirt is washed from under our feet, we grow less stable and confident in our stance.  In human fashion that does not like to lose control, we lift our feet and place them in a fresh, new location on the bottom of the river where we once again are stable and solidly in control of our own destiny and balance.  We are in the river, but with our feet firmly planted in the dirt at the bottom.  Again, working hard to remain balanced and in control of our own life.

Another invitation to go deeper takes the prophet in waist deep.  Now the current of the river is strong.  So strong that it requires you to broaden your stance and resist the pressure on you as it splashes and pushes against you.  That is the holy flow of God seeking your surrender to allow the Spirit to carry you.  Yet again your stance remains fixed against the flow: Rooted firmly in the dirt at the bottom; maintaining selfish resistance to the pressure of the Holy Spirit.  Oh yes, you are in the river.  Deep in the river.  Perhaps leading small groups, discipling others, teaching classes, and devoting time to be with God.  But the foundation of your life and the destiny of your will remain solidly in your control with your feet planted in the dirt at the bottom of the river.

Finally the invitation comes again to go deeper.  This time it is so deep that it is uncrossable.  It’s over your head.  As you walk in further, the water gets higher and higher to the point where you are no longer able to keep your feet on the bottom and your head above water at the same time.  By accepting the invitation to go into the deep you come to a choice.  That critical point comes when you must decide: Do you let your feet leave the security of your own control and trust the water to sustain you, or do you turn back to the shallows where you maintain complete control with your feet on the bottom?  That is the choice of your life.

You’re on your tip toes trying every option to maintain just a touch on the bottom where you feel you are in control.  And the awesome reality bears upon you—to let go, or to turn back. Is it frightening? Yes indeed.  Is it a hard choice? You bet.  To be carried fully and completely in the flow of God’s holiness or to keep your feet on the bottom where at least you have the security of controlling your own formation and destiny, that is the choice that must be made.

Flow of God’s Heart

As you finally make that deep, soul-surrendering choice to let your feet come off the bottom, you find that the holy flow of God’s heart bears you up, carrying you in the redemptive restoration of His love. And suddenly as you surrender to the flow and release control, you find things changing completely.  

Until now, with your feet planted in the dirt at the bottom of the river, you have remained fixed in your own self-determined position watching as the river goes by.  But now, as your feet come off the bottom, you are carried along in the flow of the river watching as the banks slide by. And the pressure against your side subsides as the river takes you with it.

You have not created this river, for it flows from the very heart of God.  But in its flow you are carried to places that are dry and desert, needy and broken, hurting and lost.  And there, you bring life, and renewal, and grace, and peace, and love.  Perhaps at the office, or perhaps at school.  Maybe with your family members or neighbors.  Or even in the casual encounters of your day.  Wherever you go, you bring life—the life of God’s holiness transforming the desert into lush, life-sustaining land.  Restoring the land of one person’s heart, or the community, or the church, or the city, or the workplace closer to what God envisioned from the beginning.  

You may not be alone in bringing life for there are many in this river.  But you are part of its current.  And you know that the river flows ahead of you as well as behind you.  Others have brought life before you, and others will follow after.  In this flow we are always moving and always leaving a changed environment.

You do not know where it goes.  But that is not as important as the fact that, wherever the river goes, it brings life. And in your surrendered release, you help in bringing the restoration of transformation wherever you go.

But there is a warning.  As with any river, there are some places that become traps.  On occasion as the water begins to swirl in a small eddy of self-indulgence; the interaction with the dirt on the banks brings confusion.  Perhaps you have walked close to the edge of a river and found the soft places where the water and the dirt are mixed.  It is no longer only water, and no longer only dirt.  It has become confused so that it is no longer either, but really both.  It’s muddy, squishy, and mucky.  

The identity confusion resulting from this syncretism prevents the free flow and movement of the river. Certainly where the water gives itself to bring life, there is restoration of the land.  But where there is careless toying in an effort to be both, the effect is overdone, and the land becomes useless and swampy.  It does not really know what it is.  Is it dirt? Not really.  Is it water?  Not completely.  It is some confusing combination of the two that serves only as a quagmire to confuse and entrap.  Be careful not to toy too much with being both water and dirt under the guise of relevance, for there is but one Lord and one master. 

Of course we know that we are called to be in the world.  But also not of the world.  This delicate balance of engagement and separateness is only achieved by allowing the very holy nature of God to be completely and wholly reflected in and through us.  For God’s holiness alone is truly capable of being reflected in that perfected balance of being wholly other, while also being responsibly engaged.  

Any effort on our part to manage the intricate balance between the two by our own cleverness will always fall short and yield a legalistic bias toward one or the other—sectarianism or mere social activism.  The act of release and surrender, allowing the holy river of God to completely carry us, is the singular act of our will. It allows God’s nature to be naturally reflected so that His otherness yields the magnetic vision for a whole person and creation, and His engagement compels initiative in reaching the broken people and places of creation.

Lest we are distracted by the pitfalls of the swirling eddies, know that the river we have now surrendered to carries us through the needy places bringing life wherever it goes.  There is fruit; there is transformation; there is wholeness as God intended.  Be reminded that this river is not of our own doing. It is not the creation of any person or group.  It comes from the very heart of God.  It is not like other themes we embrace in Scripture that are about God’s actions toward us, or in us, or through us.  This river of holiness is the very nature of God, flowing from His heart. And so, wherever it goes there is life.

Where Are Your Feet Planted?

The question, then, is simple.  Where are your feet planted?  Perhaps you are in the river, but your feet are firmly secured in the dirt at the bottom, where you maintain control of your own destiny and agenda.  You may even be quite deep in the river—committed to high levels of activity or leadership within the church of God.  Yet you derive your security from your own ability to control and direct your will.

Perhaps you have even taken things into your own hands in an effort to become relevant and accepted by people.  In the process, you find yourself in a sidelined whirlpool that increasingly is causing deep identity confusion in you.  You wonder what difference it all makes anyway.  You ask, “Is there really a transformation that is possible?  Or, do we just reframe what we see in this world in a way that allows it to become Christian?”  Whatever your place, wherever you are, the most important question remains: “Where are your feet planted?”

So I’d like to ask two questions:

  1. If you are standing on the banks of the river and have never accepted the invitation to step into the water, would you accept that invitation now and step in?
  2. If you are in the water—to your ankles, knees, or waist—but your feet remain securely lodged in the selfish security of your own will and destiny, and you’d like to accept the invitation to go in where your feet cannot touch bottom, then would you make that choice of surrender? 

I assure you that the river of God’s holiness will sustain you.  It is a frightening act of surrender.  But God has never failed to uphold, transform, and carry those who have faithfully let their feet come off the bottom and flow with the river of His holiness in complete surrender. It is a truly breath-taking choice. Where are your feet planted?

May the grace of God welcome you deep into the river of His holiness, carrying you in its flow, transforming you, and through you bringing the life of God’s wholeness to broken people and places in His restorative love.

Kevin Mannoia