Living in primary reality
We get lost when we turn our focus away from ultimate things
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One minute you’re dancing at dawn before a Buddha statue in the Negev desert, spiked Limonana in hand, and the next minute you see paragliders from Gaza silhouetted against the sky and headed your way. Primary reality is about to overtake you.
My first week at L’Abri in Switzerland in 1973 I was standing at a busted guardrail on a winding mountain pass with others from the chalets, and we were peering down at an upended pickup truck that had careened over the side and into the gorge. The driver’s survival seemed unlikely. One of the onlookers broke the silence and said softly: “Ultimate reality.”
It was an apt introduction to my new adventure toward faith in Christ.
In the summertime, people flock to the shore to escape quotidian life. They want white sand and penny arcades. But if you happen to go to Wildwood, N.J., and stroll the boardwalk among T-shirt vendors, taffy shops, and boutiques, you will come upon a little space called Boardwalk Chapel where all they sell is “wine without cost” (Isaiah 55:1). Some tourists quicken their pace, offended. It is an affront because the chapel deals in primary reality, which is not what they want to think about.
To clarify terms, secondary reality is you need a new roof. Primary reality is you’re going to die soon and you need to get right with God. Seeing to a successful wedding day: secondary reality. Seeing to a good marriage: primary reality. Your kid making the school football team: secondary reality. Your kid developing good character: primary reality.
You get the idea.
Churches can fall into a secondary-reality trap too, a strong tendency in a First World country where church entails an expensive facility to run, with lots of overhead and programs. Church can become about keeping the lights on as much as keeping the Light. Billy Graham purportedly said, “Ninety-five percent of today’s church activities would continue if the Holy Spirit were removed from us.”
Getting old is God’s natural aid toward focusing on primary reality, but even that’s no guarantee. It is a bizarre tribute to the power of the devil to keep men blinded in secondary reality that many gray-hairs with one foot on the banana peel are still worrying about money. I asked my 97-year-old friend Gil, one of Merrill’s Marauders in World War II, “Where do you expect to be in 10 years?” He said, “You mean, where am I going to be buried?” I said, “No, I don’t mean that.” I was asking a primary-reality question, and he was answering a secondary-reality question.
The reason it is good to attend to primary reality is because primary reality will give you guidance in addressing matters of secondary reality, whereas secondary reality will not give you guidance in addressing matters of primary reality. Young people might avoid huge blunders by beginning to pray early: “Teach me to number my days, that I may have a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
I had a scare that helped me live in primary reality. It was the time I almost got killed in a deer accident on I-75 in the U.P. in Michigan. When I stepped out of the car after landing in the ditch, and I noticed I was not dead, I dropped to my knees and thanked God, brimming with an acute sense of now living on borrowed time. The feeling lasted a few days.
When Peter counsels to be “conscious of God” (1 Peter 2:19), he is counseling us to live in primary reality rather than secondary reality. It is the secret to bearing with unfairness. A world without Christ will never solve the socialism/communism problem that erupts periodically in human history like a cold sore virus always dormant in the body. This is because the root cause of communism is envy. And the only cure for envy is to deliberately live in the primary-reality awareness that God will right all wrongs one day.
As partygoers in the Negev lately learned so sadly, you can either embrace primary reality voluntarily, or you can have it dropped on you.
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