An old Sufi story* tells about a man walking through the forest who saw a fox that had lost its legs and the man wondered how it lived. Then he saw a tiger come up with game in its mouth. The tiger ate its fill and left the rest of the meat for the fox.
The next day God fed the fox by means of the same tiger. The man began to wonder at God’s greatness and said to himself, “I too shall rest in a corner with full trust in the Lord and he will provide me with all that I need.”
He did this for many days but nothing happened. He was almost at death’s door from starvation when he heard a voice say, “O you who are in the path of error, open your eyes to the truth! Stop imitating the disabled fox and follow the example of the tiger.”
Three Nonnegotiables for Healthy Spiritual Living
This ancient story reveals several secrets to effective spiritual living and why we need people to become truly self actualized.
One, spirituality is deeply relational.
The fabric of our being is communal and relational. We thrive the most when we learn how to live effectively within the context of our relationships.
There’s no such thing as a Lone Ranger spirituality.
There’s this myth about spirituality in contrast to religion that says that spirituality is personal and private, while religion is communal. Not true!
Effective, transformational spirituality is not about living up on the mountaintop in direct communication with the Universe, like the stereotypical picture of the monk or guru who sits up on the peak alone receiving and dispensing the wisdom of life to intrepid and interested mountain climbers or spiritual seekers.
Effective spirituality is like the tiger in our story—taking what feeds us and sharing it with hungry people. And the truth is, everyone in our circles of relationships are hungry in various ways.
Spirituality is essentially relational because our growth as people is directly impacted by our ability to relate to people. It’s in our relationships where the rubs of life so often take place. So unless we learn how to navigate those “rubs” – our journey toward becoming more actualized humans on this planet of people by living life well among people – we isolate our spirituality and it eventually withers into ineffectiveness.
Two, relational spirituality reframes faith and trust.
The man in our story was rebuked by God for trying to imitate the passiveness of the fox rather than the active sharing of the tiger.
Many people have the view of spirituality as mostly sitting and waiting on God. “It’s just you and me, God,” they say. “God will provide. I just need to have enough faith in order to experience God’s intervention.” It’s the “monk in the cave” or “guru on the mountaintop” approach.
The problem with this kind of spiritual paradigm is that it leads to isolationism. If God only acted directly, why would you need others? If you could become completely self-actualized in a vacuum, why would you need others? God could simply put each of us in a sealed off vacuum chamber until we finalized achieved perfection, and then let us free.
Trust in God or the Universe is not just sitting in a corner trying to convince yourself that you will be provided for if you simply have enough faith.
I’ve discovered in my life that most often the way God has provided for me is through other people who have shared their love, generosity, and support with me. God has used “the tigers” in my life to bless me time and time again.
My willingness to open myself up to other people, to be willing to receive from them, is an act of radical trust in God and the humanity that God chooses to work through. My willingness to stop trying to be “superman,” mister omnicompetent superhero in life who can go it alone very well, thank you, and instead realize my need for other people to help me grow into the man I’m meant to be, is an act of radical trust in God and the people God chooses to use in my life.
Three, spirituality demands a relational environment because at the heart of spirituality is forgiveness and love.
All spiritual traditions describe the fundamental nature of God with the word love. God is love.
Here’s the way the Christian scriptures state this reality:
“Since God loved us that much [Jesus giving his life to forgive us], we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and God’s love has been brought to full expression through us…God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” 1 John 4:11-12
In the one of the most concise descriptions of the divine nature, we are reminded that God is love. And notice that central to the attribute of divine love is forgiveness. And the natural progression of that spiritual experience is that we are then people who love and therefore who forgive others.
Our spiritual development, the process of becoming more and more self actualized as human beings, is to learn how to love more deeply and more completely. We learn to love ourselves. And we learn to love others. Spiritual growth is about growing in the process of loving well.
But you and I cannot truly love either ourselves or others without learning how to forgive. The point is, it is only within the context of relationships—where we experience the bumps and bruises of life—that we learn how to love and forgive. That’s where healthy spirituality is developed.
Loving and Forgiving Without Judgment
One of the obstacles we often face with loving and forgiving is our tendency to judge people. Notice in our story, the tiger gives food to the disabled fox without condemning or judging the fox. The tiger refuses to interrogate the fox about how it lost its legs. Was it being irresponsible? Who’s fault was it? Did the fox make bad or unwise choices that led to this tragic loss?
No, the tiger saw the need and without judgment gave of its own abundance.
Divine love and forgiveness are always without conditions. They are simply given, no strings attached. That’s why those actions and predispositions with God are called grace.
The truth is, you and I as human beings simply cannot grow spiritually to our most actualized selves outside the context of our relationships. Why? Because it is in our relationships where we are forced to rub up against others and they with us in a way that prompts and teaches us what it means to really love and forgive in every context of our lives.
So which do you find yourself modeling or identifying more with in your spiritual life? The man who tried to be like the fox, or the tiger?
* Adapted from Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, p. 79.
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