The Invitation: Are You Living In Flatland?

flatland (n.)

1735, from flat (adj.) + land (n.). Edwin Abbott’s popular book about an imaginary two-dimensional world was published in 1884.

Entries linking to flatland

c. 1300, “stretched out (on a surface), prostrate, lying the whole length on the ground;” mid-14c., “level, all in one plane; even, smooth;” of a roof, “low-pitched,” from Old Norse flatr “flat,” from Proto-Germanic *flata- (source also of Old Saxon flat “flat, shallow,” Old High German flaz “flat, level,” Old High German flezzi “floor”), from PIE root *plat- “to spread.”

From c. 1400 as “without curvature or projection.” Sense of “prosaic, dull” is from 1570s, on the notion of “featureless, lacking contrast.” Used of drink from c. 1600; of women’s bosoms by 1864. Of musical notes from 1590s, because the tone is “lower” than a given or intended pitch. As the B of the modern diatonic scale was the first tone to be so modified, the “flat” sign as well as the “natural” sign in music notation are modified forms of the letter b (rounded or square).

Flat tire or flat tyre is from 1908. Flat-screen (adj.) in reference to television is from 1969 as a potential technology. Flat-earth (adj.) in reference to refusal to accept evidence of a global earth, is from (n.)

Old English londland, “ground, soil,” also “definite portion of the earth’s surface, home region of a person or a people, territory marked by political boundaries,” from Proto-Germanic *landja- (source also of Old Norse, Old Frisian Dutch, Gothic land, German Land), perhaps from PIE *lendh- (2) “land, open land, heath” (source also of Old Irish land, Middle Welsh llan “an open space,” Welsh llan “enclosure, church,” Breton lann “heath,” source of French lande; Old Church Slavonic ledina “waste land, heath,” Czech lada “fallow land”). But Boutkan finds no IE etymology and suspects a substratum word in Germanic,

Etymological evidence and Gothic use indicates the original Germanic sense was “a definite portion of the earth’s surface owned by an individual or home of a nation.” The meaning was early extended to “solid surface of the earth,” a sense which once had belonged to the ancestor of Modern English earth (n.). Original senses of land in English now tend to go with country. To take the lay of the land is a nautical expression. In the American English exclamation land’s sakes (1846) land is a euphemism for Lord.

God of the Flatlanders

I’ve always been intrigued by the stars. When I was a lonely teenager, I used to ride my bike to a factory on the edge of town, lay down on top of an old semi-trailer rusting into oblivion in the back lot, and lose myself in the mesmerizing light of the Milky Way. Over the years, my interest in astronomy burgeoned, running through several serious telescopes until I finally built my own. I bought a used parabolic mirror 18 inches across and an inch-and-a-half thick for a thousand bucks, and used the woodshop at work to build a Dobsonian reflector that stood nearly eight feet tall. I needed a step stool just to look through the eyepiece! Now I wasn’t just seeing points of light in the night sky, but giant nebulae of fluorescing gas, ancient globular clusters, the birthplaces of stars, and hundreds of galaxies, each holding a billion suns. The universe is truly an enormous place. Physics taught me about the universe’s dimensions—not just how big it was, but the dimensions themselves. We live in a 3-D universe with three spatial dimensions (up and down, sideways, and front and back) as well as a fourth dimension, time. The universe’s dimensions—space and time themselves—actually came into being at the same time as the stuff stars and planets are made of. That’s a mind-bender. According to physicists, there was nothing—no matter, no space or time, just a void—and then suddenly poof! the universe was. It literally came into being ex nihilo (out of nothing), just like theologians have been saying for 2000 years. I also learned to think beyond our familiar four dimensions, into the extra-dimensional realms theorized by cosmologists. A useful tool for conceptualizing other dimensions is Flatland. It’s based on a book written in the 1850’s, where the author (who was definitely ahead of his time!) envisioned a universe of only two spatial dimensions, instead of our three. His 2-D world, with no up and down, was called “Flatland.”

Think of the Flatlanders as flat people, sort of like squashed bugs, living within a sheet of paper (a “plane” in the Junior High physics you forgot eons ago) lying on a table. Inside the paper, a Flatlander can go forward and back, right and left, but not up and down. The paper is their entire world. Now here’s the hard part: Flatlanders are not merely limited to staying within a paper that sits on a table in a room within a 3-D cosmos: their whole universe is the paper. There is no table and no room. There is nothing above them or below them, because there is no such thing as above and below. The whole idea of up and down is so foreign to Flatland that a third dimension is literally inconceivable to its inhabitants. Everything that exists or can be known to them is inside that sheet of paper. There are lots of fun ways you can use the Flatland to imagine a God who exists in more dimensions than what we do. But for our purposes, we’re going to visualize ourselves living in Flatland to think about the choices we face in the Christian life. Imagine you are on a journey in the Flatlander’s sheet-of-paper universe, moving forward toward your destiny (forward and back is one of our two dimensions). To you, the world in front of you looks like a thin line of white—a sheet of paper seen edge-on. You are using up one of your dimensions by moving forward, so now you only have one more dimension left to make your choices within: a line that extends to your left and right. Suddenly, your destiny journey in Flatland brings you face-to-face with an obstacle. Adversity looms up in front of you, blocking the way forward. The white line of your universe has a big, black no-fly zone in the middle. This leaves you with only two options: you can go left or right.

In Flatland, you can go to either side of an obstacle, but never over or under it, because up and down is not a dimension in your world. Your choice is always one-dimensional. No matter what journey you are on, in Flatland you only get two choices: either left or right. Here’s the point: most Christians live like Flatlanders. Our Christian life unfolds in a universe where every question and every decision we face is a binary choice: right and wrong. Did I respond well or did I get angry? Did I do the right thing when I drove past the homeless person with the cardboard sign without stopping? Did I tithe? Do I spend enough time with the kids? Is taking on this role God’s will for my life? Should I accept this job offer or stay where I am? Like the Flatlanders, we view our options in life through a one-dimensional lens. We call that dimension “God’s will for our lives” (for brevity I’m going to call it the ‘choice dimension’). Our life is a series of right-and-wrong, left-and-right choices, for each of which God has a predetermined “will.” Our job as Christians is to figure out what the right choice is (God’s will), and go that direction. A Flatlander’s life is like an 80-year final exam of all true-false questions.

The questions aren’t there to build something in you or move you toward a larger purpose. It isn’t about your relational connection with the instructor, or whether or not you love the material. You are graded only on whether you make the right choice. If you choose a right answer, you get a point. If you do God’s will and get enough points, good things will happen to you. If you choose wrong and miss God’s will, you will reap what you sow and miss out on God’s best. The focus of the Christian life, your fundamental activity on earth, is to make right choices.
If you did the assessment and are saying, “Ouch!” welcome to Flatland! If you are proud that you got the right answers and are better than most Christians at this—hey, you’re right back in Flatland! And if right now you are feeling bad about being in Flatland, if you are kicking yourself because you should know better by now—well, you just did it again! Welcome again to Flatland! The biggest problem in Flatland is that its inhabitants live in fear. Since every choice is about right and wrong, every decision is an opportunity to blow it. If reaching my destiny is a function of making good choices, making a poor choice could mean I would “miss my calling.” That raises my anxiety about decision-making sky-high. Flatlanders are laser-focused on figuring out and doing God’s will (which sounds good on the surface) but they do it because they are afraid: afraid of being wrong, afraid of getting pain as their reward if they make a wrong choice, afraid of losing God’s favor.

This is why many Christians find it so difficult to hear God’s voice: almost every question they ask is based on fear. Years ago, a capable young businessman approached me about being coached. He began by telling the story of his early years as a Christian. Determined to be all-out for God, he was doing whatever God asked, living on the mission field, being radical for God. In his hunger to do well, he began to seek God’s will in every decision in life, no matter how small. Should I walk on this side of the street? Do I buy this brand or that? Which route do I take to work today? He got so obsessive about finding God’s will that every minuscule decision became an opportunity to fail. He became suicidal. So he backed way off from God just to protect himself (not a bad decision in my opinion), went into business, and made a million dollars by the time he was thirty. Now that he had reached his big goal in life, he wanted to go back and reconcile his conflicting feelings about God. So he was telling me the story of where he was in his relationship with God. “So,” I asked after he’d brought his story up to the present, “Sum up for me: who is God to you right now?” He thought for a while, then flatly stated, “God is the bringer of death and destruction in my life.” “Okay,” I responded, with an inward smile. “Have you told him that?” “What do you mean?” “Have you told God that you feel he is the bringer of death and destruction in your life?” “I can’t do that,” he replied anxiously. “Why not?” “Well… it’s against the rules!” “What rules?” “You just don’t say stuff like that to God,” he sputtered. “Why not?” “You just don’t!” “Okay,” I replied, tacking in a different direction. “Can you think of any characters in the Bible who told God they didn’t like him?” “Um… well, Job. And David did. And Abraham when they were talking about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.” “So what does that tell you?” “Apparently people do talk to God that way.” “So you want to give it a try?”

After a bit of further back and forth he decided to take the plunge. “Okay. Just take one minute and tell God what you said to me, and then see what he says back.” He took a deep, still-nervous breath and told God what was in his heart. And he discovered Jesus was okay with him. That one minute was a breakthrough conversation in his life. God wasn’t mad at him for being hurt, or for any of the choices he’d made. He began to realize that there were things that were more important to God than obsessing about God’s will and the Flatlander rules. Choice vs. Connection There is good news invading Flatland, and it is this: following Jesus is not about doing the right things: it’s about doing things together. What God wants is to be with you. What motivates him is to love you and be good to you. His objective is not to create slaves that obey him, but friends and lovers that hang out with him. God’s purpose for your life is found in the relational dimension, not the Flatlander’s choice dimension. Following Jesus is not about doing the right things: it’s about doing things together. It’s easy to focus in on the choices of the Christian life to the point where we miss the overall point. And one of the dangers of writing a book about change is that becoming moral and disciplined becomes the objective. But it isn’t. The point is to get close to Jesus. All change is only to serve that end. (That means that deploying my own willpower to overcome a bad habit without meeting Jesus along the way is a missed opportunity.) Every decision we make is only to serve that end. (That means that making the “right” decision out of a place of fear and anxiety about pleasing God is actually a failure.) Any “right” decision or disciplined change that makes us less dependent on Jesus is a failure, and every fall and broken action that ends up drawing us to him becomes a success. That’s the third dimension that Flatlanders miss—the up and down dimension: relationship. It’s all about making choices together, not all about making right choices. Father is totally clear in Scripture on his overarching purpose. It is not to create an army of people who do things right and follow his every command.

That would be the work of an egotist and a dictator. The purpose of God is to “unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10, RSV). God’s purpose is union. It is building friends, confidants and lovers, “that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7, RSV). It is not to create moral creatures, but sons and daughters. It is to build us up into the measure of the stature of Christ, to a people who are Jesus’ peers, of whom Father can say, “This is a bride fully worthy of the hand of my only son in marriage.” God’s purpose is about a process of bringing all creation into oneness with him. Relationship is the third dimension that Jesus brought to the Flatlander world of First-Century Judaism, the dimension that helps us begin to grasp God’s true purpose of union with him. The problem that had to be addressed first was that humanity chose to live in the choice dimension through the Tree of Knowledge. Eating of that tree gave the choice dimension the power to trump the relational dimension—our sin made a relational separation between us and God. It threw us out of the relational dimension. The work of Jesus was to restore us to relationship and restore those two dimensions to their proper place—that the relational dimension trumps the choice dimension. “God is more concerned with who you are becoming than what you are doing.” The vehicle that restored the relational dimension was grace. Grace is God’s gift of rightness. Under grace, we live a life of relationship instead of a life of choice, because the requirements of the choice dimension have already been satisfied. Instead of focusing on doing the right things, we can enter the third dimension of relationship through grace, and walk together with Jesus there. The Will of God Since the focal point of Father’s purposes is in the relational dimension, the “will of God” is best understood in terms of relationship instead of choice. For instance, suppose that you are offered a dream job across the country, but it would mean uprooting your family to go. What is the will of God for your life in this situation? For a Flatlander focused on the choice dimension, it means God has a certain physical place in mind where you are supposed to live, and being “in

God’s will” means figuring out what that place is and living there. Success is making the right binary choice. The “will of God” is best understood in terms of relationship instead of choice. That decision looks totally different in the relational dimension. Because God’s purpose lies in the vertical dimension of relationship, where you go on the horizontal dimension of choice is much less important. In fact, it often does not matter to him at all! Making the “right” choice is not about which place you live in, it is about inviting Jesus into the process and meeting him there.

If you make the decision with Jesus, you are in God’s will. Now let’s say that in this decision one choice actually is better than the other—for instance, putting my career first is damaging to my family and my marriage. If I make that choice, have I blown it? In Flatlander thinking, I have, and it is almost impossible to correct the effects of that wrong decision. I did something bad, and I will pay the price. I will reap what I sow. In Flatland, the decision is defined by whether it is right or wrong in the choice dimension. But in the relational dimension, it looks totally different. My choice to pursue the job wasn’t wrong in the sense that I suddenly pushed switch “B” instead of switch “A”—the choice came out of something in my heart that was already out of joint. In my brokenness, I thought that a job would give me the significance or peace or approval I craved. The mess came from what was already messed up within me. In that situation, God’s will is not to make a certain choice but to draw closer to him. He wants to meet me in a process of healing and restoration that gives me the power to live free and full in the future. If I make the wrong choice, if the pain I create draws me to him and my brokenness is healed, that’s actually a huge win—the angels are rejoicing over that one. If I make a good choice and I do it with him, that’s a win, too. There is no choice that cannot be leveraged in God’s plan, because what God is after is my heart, not my choice. All he needs to do his thing is for me to engage him: to allow him into the process. Then he’ll work to fill my significance needs, strengthening our relationship now and setting me free from the compulsion to try to get what I desire from a job. Then next time making the right choice will be as easy as breathing. When God made the ultimate revelation of how we are to relate to him, he chose family images to do it. He is Father, our Abba. Jesus is his son, who is

not ashamed to call us brothers. We are his bride, his body, adopted into his family. The Old Testament way of relating to God through rules, principles and choices is an inferior covenant, a less-accurate (although true) way of compressing the character of an infinite God into finite terms humanity can understand. Since our walk with God is best understood in terms of family relationships, God’s purpose is also best understood in relational terms. God’s will is relationship. When you treat God’s will as a matter of making right choices, you will eventually end up making a poor choice and feeling cut off from God to boot. If you focus on the relationship, even the pain of wrong choices works toward the larger goal. In the relational universe, I am not taking a true-false test to prove I am good. Instead, I am on a glorifying journey of love with my soul-mate. God’s overarching purpose to unite us to him operates on such a different plane that it can even be accomplished through our “wrong” choices! Moving out of a Flatlander point of view:

Silence in the Wilderness

Let’s look at another example. Suppose you are in a wilderness season where you’ve lost a job or a role that was really important to you (I’ve coached many leaders in this situation over the last 15 years). To a Flatlander, the big question is, “What went wrong?” That’s because in Flatlander thinking, adversity is the result of bad choices, either by you or others. So somebody must have done something wrong! The second question is, “God, what do you want me to do next?” I’ve seen leaders in wilderness seasons ask that question for months or even years without an answer, until I finally codified it into a principle: “In the first half of a wilderness, you can ask until you are blue in the face, but God won’t tell you what you are supposed to do next.”

Why does he answer that request for direction with silence? Because of our focus. In wilderness seasons, we feel disjointed and out-of-control. The things that gave us a sense of identity and stability (a job or role) have been removed. We respond to our discomfort (unmet desire) by going back to our Flatlander origins. “Maybe my life isn’t working right now because I made a bad choice,” we wonder. So we try extra hard to figure out his will so we can make the right choice the next time, thinking that will fix it. We are operating out of fear. Meanwhile, Jesus is saying, “Hey, you are in this wonderful set of circumstances—you aren’t working, you have lots of time and less responsibility than you’ve had for a decade. Can we maybe just hang out? Like go to your favorite spot on the lake, or take a bike ride together, or even just talk?

I don’t want to have another business conversation where you don’t trust me with your future so you keep begging me to speak. You are so focused on figuring out how to get to the next thing that this huge opportunity for relationship is just passing you by.” When God answers our prayers with silence, it is often because to speak would keep us living in Flatland, obsessed withp the choice and captive to fear. Silence is one of God’s great strategies for shifting our focus from choice to relationship.

Who Gets to Choose? In Flatland, God makes up his mind what must be done and our job is to figure out his will and obey. But in a relationship where you and God have fallen in love, there are many matters where he loves to leave the decision to you. Several years ago I was facing a very difficult coaching session with a client who was in serious trouble. Before the appointment I was out walking and pleading for wisdom in how to approach the problem. Out of the blue I heard God say, “Why are you asking me? I like watching you function.”

Exercise: Free To Choose Part of the desire for freedom God planted in us has to do with the ability to choose. A person with no choices is not free—and is not trusted or believed in, either. Freedom is a high priority for Father: he wants you to live in it and experience it. In fact, the Word says that “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1, RSV). So let’s experience his freedom in a new way. Pick a question or two from the list, and ask Father. Listen for a minute, then jot down whatever comes into your heart, even if you aren’t totally sure it is him: • “Father, what’s a choice before me today where you want to enjoy watching what I choose?” • “What am I free to do today?” • “Jesus, here’s what I’d like to do with you today: _. Want to come?” • “Is there a decision I’ve agonized over lately where it doesn’t matter to you which direction I go?” • “What happens inside you as a Dad when you release me to make a choice?” • “Father, what do you believe about my ability to make good decisions?” I wanted a word from him because I was scared and not feeling particularly hopeful. Instead of telling me what to do, he gave me what I really needed: confidence. He believed in me instead of giving me an answer. Often, it is God’s good pleasure simply to watch us choosing, and exercising the free will he gave us through the mind of Christ he is planting in us. His enjoyment of us is often a greater purpose than our making the “right” choice. To be clear, just because God’s purpose is focused on the relational dimension doesn’t mean that the choice dimension simply disappears. Just because I am jumping up and down doesn’t mean I can’t still go sideways. There are still good and bad choices in life. Sin still exists. The point is that in thinking like a Flatlander and focusing on choice, we are doing what Paul calls “starting with the Spirit and ending with the flesh” (Gal. 3:3). We got saved by grace into a romance with Jesus, but then we turn around and live as if our fiancé’s all-consuming passion is watching us like a hawk so we never make a mistake. God’s will is simply that we know him, romance him and come into a full union of love with him. Everything else pales in significance. God’s will is that we know and love him.


So where did finding God’s will for our lives get to be such a big, hairy deal? It comes from our misconception about who he is. The Flatlander God is a Father whose first priority is that his children behave. It is easy for us to fall into that trap, because we’ve been told to behave all our lives. Clean your room, put away your toys, eat your peas—from the first day we can remember, we were constantly told that toeing the line was a big part of our job. But when the real Father, heaven’s Father, looks down at his children, getting them to obey the rules is the farthest thing from his mind! Actually, he does want us to behave—like kids, with all the noise, chaos and breakage that goes with that. When your kids were little, did you enjoy watching them play in the mud, build a snowman or race their Hot Wheels cars across the kitchen floor? I remember laughing as my little ones brought the snails they’d collected inside and raced them up the TV screen, leaving dozens of trails of slime across the glass. Shoot, I helped! It’s in those moments that we are like our Father in heaven. His desire is that we enjoy life and enjoy him, and grow up having favor with God and man until we reach the same capacity for love and responsibility as Jesus.

In a recent workshop I had the group do the activation where they practice sharing their glory (we have glory because we share in Jesus’ glory) with each other. For one gal it was a difficult exercise where she struggled to express herself. As Annie pondered why speaking up was so hard, she began to see how her home environment had shaped her. She grew up with a violent, alcoholic father, and beatings were a frequent occurrence. He hated noise, and the kids were punished severely for making themselves heard. Annie learned to behave and not speak up, because being quiet meant safety. Decades later, her husband was still getting in trouble with her for rustling the potato chip bag when he reached in for a chip, because you just don’t behave that way. Making noise was against the rules. Annie had a very good reason as a child for developing the belief that she shouldn’t speak up or make noise. Many of our wrong beliefs are like that—they formed in painful situations where there was a real need to protect ourselves. There is no reason for her to feel any shame about forming that belief—but there is also now no reason to keep the belief, either. The circumstances that taught her to protect her heart are no longer present. However, once a belief gets entrenched it often outlives the circumstances that spawned it. It often helps to act in the opposite way of a belief we want to change. As I was listening to Annie’s story I noticed a cluster of empty plastic water bottles on her table. I picked one up and said playfully, “Tell you what: for the next ten minutes, while I am talking to the group up here in front, I want you to crinkle up this water bottle and make noise.”

Stoltzfus, Tony. The Invitation: Transforming the Heart through Desire Fulfilled (p. 45). Coach22 Bookstore LLC. Kindle Edition.