As a child I remember being in the sea off the Cornish coast with my father when I was caught by an undertow. For a few moments it was very frightening fortunately dad was a good swimmer and we got back to land unscathed.
An undertow is not the same thing as a rip tide. The latter can drag you out to sea and drown you. An undertow sweeps you along for a short distance and spits you out. Unless you’re a small child or a poor swimmer, an undertow won’t kill you. But when you’re surprised by a powerful one, it sure feels like it will.
The first impulse many people feel in those moments is to fight the current. That can make things worse. As counterintuitive as the advice may seem, experts recommend that you swim with the undertow until you feel it release you.
I believe that in our lives we can be caught out by an ‘undertow’. Suddenly life takes a different and unexpected turn and we are swept along to a place we don’t want to be. Our reaction is fight against it, to try and get back to the comfortable life we had. We can spend loads of energy fighting the undertow, when what we need to do is to swim with it.
Instead of denying or trying to work our way out of the circumstances we find ourselves in we need to admit candidly that these are real forces pulling us from the shore. At times like these we need to recognise the undertow will keep us in its grip as long as we fight against it. Our release, and our ability to land on a peaceful shore, can only come after we learn to swimming with it.
This may sound like popular psychology to you. And that’s fine. But strictly speaking I’m talking about one of the enduring lessons of the Bible. Christians traditionally talk about spiritual practices like self-examination and forgiveness as paths to spiritual liberation and restored wholeness.
Take for instance an episode from the Joseph story in Genesis (chapters 37-50).
Years after his brothers had sold him into Egyptian slavery, Joseph had risen to the rank of second in command under Pharaoh. A famine swept the land, and those same brothers turned up begging for food.
Joseph managed to hold it together for a while. These men had degraded him, betrayed him, and tossed aside in an unimaginably cruel way. The ‘undertow’ would have been strong for Joseph, and he initially fought against it.
Had his spiritual ‘undertow’ merely swept him away, he would have killed or imprisoned his tormentors. Instead, he decided to swim with it.
He acknowledged his pain as his own. The text puts it this way: “Joseph could no longer control himself.” He sent his deputies and guards out of the room. “He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it.” (Genesis 45:1, 2)
His liberation and healing came with a dual recognition. He put it this way to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)
The wounds wrought by their hate still ached within him. And yet God’s love was healing those very wounds. He faced a choice: exact revenge and tumble out of control in reaction to their hate or do the hard, honest work of reconciliation and claim the freedom of God’s healing love.
Joseph chose love. He chose freedom. In other words, he swam with the undertow.
Our present circumstances mean that the undertow of Covid19 has swept us off our feet. Do we swim against it, fighting to get back to the way things were? Or do we swim with it for a season and allow it to bring us safely to a different shore?
God bless and stay safe