The River: An Analogy

Imagine all the people of the world are in a giant river with banks too steep to climb. The banks are the Law given through Moses, the Old Covenant. Everyone falls short. No one is “good enough” to climb out on their own.

Some people in the river can swim and think they are doing all right – after all, they can keep themselves afloat through their own efforts. They cannot climb the banks, but they keep their heads above water with ease.

Others in the river cannot swim. They struggle and flail and scream for help, swallowing great mouthfuls of the river and sinking beneath the surface again and again, clawing their way up for one more breath of air.

Above the river lies a great castle, far above the steep banks, shimmering in glory like the sun, almost too bright to see. The king of this castle sees those in the river, and he also sees the mighty waterfall at the end of the river, which will destroy all those trapped within the water. He has compassion on those doomed to die. He knows the banks are too steep for them to climb. He sends his own son to dive into the river. The prince is scorned and drowned by those within the river, but the king restores the life of his son and raises him up from the depths. And he gives the prince a boat. (Why, you might ask, did the king not give the prince a boat from the beginning? This is just an imperfect analogy… Don’t take it too literally. Go with it.)

Now there is hope for those in the river, a way of salvation from drowning and escape from the mighty waterfall. Those who will cry to the king’s son for help will find themselves lifted from the river. When the prince has rescued all who cry out to him, he will take them all to the castle above the banks.

Which of the people are most likely to cry to the prince for help – those who can swim or those who are barely keeping themselves afloat? We often look to those around us and think they are doing so much better than we… they have more money, more fame, more apparent freedom, more apparent happiness, more friends, tighter-knit family, better job, loftier goals for themselves, or whatever it is… but those who are saving themselves are doomed. Only those who throw themselves on the mercy of God the King and cry for help from Jesus Christ the crucified and resurrected Prince will be saved from the waterfall (Eternal Death) and welcomed into the castle (Eternal Life).

Some parts of the river are as smooth as glass and reflect that which is above it – the castle of the king. Sometimes in life, God’s way is easy to see, His presence apparent, and His path brings us great joy.

Other parts of the river are rough and frothy. The raging, churning waves dunk us under the water again and again, and we can barely see anything, much less the castle above us, although we can catch brief glimpses of it if we really focus.

When the river’s waters are smooth, we are able to see the king’s castle – if we look. We are also able to see our own reflection and those around us. Swimming is much easier. We can admire ourselves and our companions. We can see things within the water and along the banks. We can enjoy the pleasures of swimming and floating. We can forget about the king and the prince, the castle and the impending waterfall. We can relax, maybe even doze off a little as we float along.

What is the kindest thing the king can do for a person in the river who refuses to look to the prince for rescue, who trusts in their own ability to swim, who is ignorant of the waterfall ahead? Is it not to make the river’s waters harsh and terrifying so the person will cry out for rescue and be saved from the river?

When the prince rescues someone, he throws them a lifeline which will keep them afloat while he reels them in to the boat. What if a person reaches smooth waters and stops looking at the prince, forgets about the rescue, and starts losing grip on the rope? Is it not the kindness of the king that he causes the river’s waters to grow rough once more to shake the person from apathy and self-reliance and to cause them to cling to the lifeline once more while the prince continues reeling them in? We can choose in that moment to thank the king for his kindness and the prince for his perseverance, keeping our faces turned toward them, or we can choose to cry out against them for giving us rope burn and upsetting our sense of peace and security and can turn our faces away from them. Our reaction will not stop the prince from reeling us in nor stop the king from doing what is best for us out of his kindness, but our reaction will affect ourselves. If anyone has ever been pulled through water before, you know that it is much easier to breathe by keeping your face turned toward the front and your chin lifted out of the water. It is thrilling. Turning your face away from where you are being pulled most often makes water go up your nose and in your mouth. It can make you feel like you’re drowning. In the same way, we are safe while we are being pulled by the prince, but which way we turn our face affects how we perceive the ride.

“…I heard a voice saying to me… ‘It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’”

Acts 26:14 (NASB)

Keep your face turned toward the prince, and you will find yourself rising farther out of the water.

There are those who cry out to the prince for rescue, but they continuously and persistently become distracted and rarely turn their faces toward the prince. They are thrown to and fro by rapids, crash against rocks, splash back and forth aimlessly in smooth water, and are generally unproductive. They help few others, their muscles grow very little, and they remain like toddlers through the whole ride. Before the waterfall, the prince will grasp them under the arms and haul them into the boat, but they will have little to nothing to show for their time in the river except some scars and water in their lungs/stomach.

Those who keep their gaze focused on the prince might learn to waterski. That is an exhilarating place to be, and it is safe as long as our gazes remain focused on the prince. If we look away, we might suffer a hard tumble. But the prince never gives up. Those who keep their gazes focused on him all the way are the ones we celebrate long after they are lifted from the river into the boat to be taken to the castle. We admire them, they inspire us, and they have the best view of the castle and the best opportunity to shout about what they see to the rest of us in the river. When they are pulled into the boat, they have strong muscles, steady balance, and huge grins on their faces.

Which are you? The choice is ultimately yours. You are not required to teach yourself how to waterski across life – you can’t waterski without being pulled, anyway. All you must choose is where you will turn your face.

“Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.”

Isaiah 45:22 (NASB)

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

John 3:16 (NASB)

“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.”

John 15:4 (NASB)

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

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