I recently read Colin Beavan’s intriguing book No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process. Beavan chronicles his attempt to live with no environmental impact for one year, in New York City, with his wife and toddler. His protocols included no purchasing of anything new, no buying anything with packaging, no gas or electric transportation, no diapers, and buying food only from local (within 100 miles) farmers. His friends both admired him and thought he was crazy. In fact, not long into his project, Beavan says to himself, “How did we ever get ourselves into this upside-down situation? We’re only a few weeks into the No Impact project, and I already feel as if normality is actually totally insane” (p. 86).
Trying to live without creating waste dramatically brought to Beavan’s attention how incredibly wasteful we have become in taken-for-granted aspects of our modern society. I couldn’t help thinking of his reaction when a bulk order of disposable cups arrived at my workplace. The order had several boxes, each containing 40 cups plus an armload of packing material. The half dozen cylinders of cups could all have fit in one box and still had room for packaging. All the packaging was meant to be used only once; into the trash it went. All the cups were disposable—one use and into the trash. So in order to prevent us from the onerous labor of washing our cups after getting a drink, we created enough bubble wrap to fill a Jacuzzi. Who’s crazy? How do we tell which side is up in our contemporary society? How do we distinguish between value and trash?
Revisiting Familiar Places
I had that question in the back of my mind while rereading the story of the prodigal son. I was gliding over the familiar phrases when out jumped verse 17, as the younger son is feeding the pigs: “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!’ ” (Luke 15:17). He came to his senses. What does it mean to “come to your senses”? I’ve heard the term used to indicate a knocked-out boxer regaining consciousness. There it would mean once again being conscious of sensory input from the outside world. In the younger son’s case the phrase must mean something similar but metaphorical, maybe more like “When he came to understand the true value of the things and people around him, he said . . .”
In what respect were the younger son’s values out of order? Previously he had undervalued life on the farm and had overvalued the adventurous pull of the far country. Those values were tested as he went on his big adventure, ending up in the pigpen, at which point he recalibrated his scale.
But lest we make the simplistic equation of far country = bad and home = good, we should remember that the elder brother, staying at home, remained equally ignorant of true values, and unlike the younger brother, who had a realization of his folly, the elder brother remains clueless at story’s end.
The most important point on which both brothers displayed ignorance was in apprehending the true nature of their father’s character. The younger brother, even as he turns for home, cooks up a plan of asking to be accepted as a servant, little realizing the joy and forgiveness awaiting him. The elder brother, in his complaint about the injustice of it all (verses 28-30), shows that he neither understands forgiveness nor the joy of living with his father and sharing in his treasures.
The younger son experiences one level of “coming to his senses” when he turns for home, but his awareness is still incomplete. He now understands that a servant in his father’s household is better off than a son who has cut himself off from the father. He has the chance to grow into another level of “sense” as he contemplates his father’s love and forgiveness. The elder brother, after his father’s gentle rebuke (verses 31, 32), has a parallel chance to recalibrate his values, to come to his senses.
That leaves the real target of the story, the reader (or hearer, in the case of Jesus’ original audience), to come to his or her senses. Knowing that the father in the story represents the character of God, we may say that a correct understanding and appreciation of God is the foundation of good sense, of coming to our senses. Or, as Proverbs 9:10 puts it: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
Two Old Testament stories expanded my understanding of this concept. The first concerns Elisha and his servant at Dothan, as told in 2 Kings 6. Aramean soldiers with their horses and chariots have surrounded the city during the night. Elisha’s servant pokes his head out the door in the morning, sees the enemy multitude, and cries out to Elisha: “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” (verse 15). Based on what the servant can see, they are in big trouble. The servant’s reaction is sensible.
But Elisha sees something different, which totally changes the interpretation of the scene. “ ‘Don’t be afraid,’ the prophet answered. ‘Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ And Elisha prayed, ‘Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (verses 16, 17).
You can bet when the servant saw God’s mighty army in comparison to the army of the Arameans, he was no longer terror-stricken. That would have been nonsense. Which leads to another aspect of “coming to our senses”: things that seem sensible from one perspective—even a normal human perspective—may seem ridiculous from another perspective. Of course this possibility can lead to charlatans making claims to be acting on God’s direct instructions—David Koresh, Jim Jones, and others come to mind. So how can we make sure we’re looking from the right perspective? In this case, Elisha prayed, and God “opened” the servant’s eyes. We are promised that God will do the same for us (James 1:5). Our eye-opening may not be as instantaneous and dramatic as the servant’s, but the promise still stands.
Finally, let’s take a look at King Nebuchadnezzar, as represented in Daniel 4. Here the king tells the story about his dream in which the giant tree is cut down. Daniel reluctantly interprets the dream, telling Nebuchadnezzar that unless he acknowledges God, he will be cut down from his position as earth’s supreme ruler and become like an animal for seven years. Sure enough, a year later, the king is glorying in the great Babylon he has built, and the curse
comes upon him.
What is interesting to note, in our context, is his recovery. At the end of the seven years, says Nebuchadnezzar, “I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored” (verse 34). Sanity was taken away from Nebuchadnezzar when he ignored God’s primacy and restored to him when he recognized it. Once again, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Prior to his animalistic phase, Nebuchadnezzar might well have been considered the wisest and most sane man on earth. But because his sanity did not acknowledge God’s authority, it crumbled into an animal existence. It seems that acknowledging God is something that makes us human and sane, and sets us apart from the animal kingdom.
So is coming to our senses the work of a moment or a lifetime? I would suggest that it may start in a moment (the road to Damascus, Dothan, the pigpen), but that in a healthy spiritual life it always continues to grow. I imagine that the prodigal son spent a lot of time contemplating his life choices, their results, and his interactions with his father on the long walk home. And he must have rethought things again after the surprise of his father’s joyous welcome. There is more to the Christian life than “coming to our senses”; there is grooming those senses, something we might call daily mental and spiritual hygiene.
Many passages, such as Philippians 1:9, 10; 4:8; and Psalm 119, encourage us to train our minds in a certain direction. Coming to our senses, from the perspective of the biblical writers, means coming to see things more as God sees them, to calibrate our values using His as our reference point, and to daily exercise our minds in relation to this goal.
Consider a model involving three levels of sanity: first, there is what the world calls sanity—people acting according to generally accepted worldly values, but apart from acknowledging God. This would be the level of the prodigal before the pigpen, Nebuchadnezzar before his animal phase, Elisha’s servant before God opens his eyes. This is the sanity that many of us get by on most of the time.
Second, there would be that basic recognition stage, during which one’s worldview is flipped to provide a dramatically new point of orientation, recognition of God as king and ultimate authority, as well as loving father and guide.
Third, there would be continuous growth based upon this new point of orientation.
Colin Beavan came to his senses in regard to environmental impact. I respect and admire him for that. But how much more important is it for us to come to our senses, daily, with regard to the love of our heavenly Father?
Scott Moncrieff is professor of English at Andrews University. This article was published August 22, 2013.